Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
One Red Flower
This eloquent description was written by 2Lt. Marion Lee "Sandy" Kempner during the Vietnam War. He is speaking of Vietnam, and his moving words were written less than three weeks before his death. Kempner's words were inspired by a plant he came across during his time out in the field. It was a single plant standing in the rain. The plant was adorned with red flowers and totally free of thorns. It is from this red flower that Signature Theatre's latest musical draws its name.
One Red Flower voices the thoughts, joys and fears of Kempner and a number of other men who served in the Vietnam War. The names have been changed, but the emotions are very real and very raw.
One Red Flower is the work of Paris Barclay, with direction by Eric Schaeffer. The show was adapted by Barclay from the book made up of soldiers' letters called "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam." The show gives a new voice to the decades old words that were written during the controversial war. However, though the words come from a time long past, they feel just as relevant today. These letters could just have easily been sent from Iraq.
This show definitely makes an impact. However, Barclay seems to have tried to pack too much into the piece. The result is a show that runs a bit too long and at times seems to lag. With some cutting, this could be a very important piece, especially given the country's current state of war.
Barclay's score is one of the best things about the show. It has a rock feel and the lyrics work well. "Free/Glossary" illustrates the secret language of the military in a clever way. "Mud and Blood and Water" provides a vivid picture of the situation at hand and "If You Are Able" tugs appropriately at the heartstrings.
The show is performed by an outstanding cast. Helen Hayes Award winner Stephen Gregory Smith is wonderful as Billy "Spanky" Bridges. His transition from an inexperienced boy to a war-hardened man is seamless. As First Lieutenant Kenny Rutherford, Clifton A. Duncan is incredibly strong. His is a character meant to inspire confidence and he does so with great skill. Joshua Davis has a more difficult job. His character, George McDuffy, isn't always likeable. However, he exhibits a growth in the character that is quite impressive.
Specialist Fifth Class Marion Johnson is based on Marion Lee Kempner. The role is played by Josh Lefkowitz who does an excellent job. He provides many thought-provoking moments and, along with Stephen Gregory Smith, gives a memorable performance of "One Red Flower." There is only one weak link in the group and that is Florence Lacey. Her primary role is that of Billy's mother. She also steps in as additional characters. Ms. Lacey is a seasoned actress with a fine voice; however, she never quite finds her way as this character. She does have a few fine moments, but her performance feels inconsistent. It is only during her final number, a reprise of "If You Are Able" that she shows what she is truly made of.
The set by Eric Grims and lighting by Chris Lee create an impression of darkness and destruction. The set is made up of fragments of brick wall that are reminiscent of war-torn structures. The walls look as if they have been bombed, and if one looks closely they can detect bullet holes surrounded by faded blood stains. Among the ruins and hanging from the ceiling are pieces that are not made of brick. Long, grid-like and light in color, these pieces can't help but remind one of the remnants of the twin towers.
One Red Flower has gone through a number of incarnations. Originally titled Letters from Nam, the musical has gone through twenty-three revisions. Perhaps, after some tightening up, there will be a successful final draft. However, this is a show worth seeing if only for the terrific score and the talented cast. Despite its problems One Red Flower is a show that is hard to forget. One Red Flower runs through October 3rd.
The Signature Theatre
Cast List (in order of appearance)
Specialist Fourth Class Billy "Spanky" Bridges: Stephen Gregory