Regional Reviews: Seattle
What a difference a day makes: to be specific, what a difference one horribly tragic day in September makes on how one perceives and is impacted by what one sees. Two shows opened on the heels of our latest day of infamy, both of which illustrate the meaning of patriotism; both of which achieve a higher level of resonance due to recent events.
The first show to open was Marc Wolf's Obie winning one man drama, Another American: Asking and Telling, now playing at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Asking and Telling is based on interviews Marc conducted over a three-year period concerning gays and lesbians in the military. The title of the piece is, of course, a play on the infamous compromise instituted by former President Clinton in 1993, which stated, in effect, that gays and lesbians could serve in America's military branches as long as they never mention their sexuality nor act upon it (which, as one member of a career military lesbian couple portrayed states early in the show, is "what it's been all along!"). While this policy was to have ended the McCarthy-esque witch hunts that have led to the ejection of thousands of military personnel, most of whom were highly decorated and commended members of their particular branch, it has instead led to widespread paranoia and a sharp increase in those dismissed. 1998, for example, saw a 92% increase in soldiers being dismissed for being gay or lesbian from the time the policy went into effect in 1994; this equals 3 to 4 soldiers a day being discharged. And the Pentagon announced in June that 2000 saw a 17% increase from the previous year.
In Another American: Asking and Telling, the persons interviewed and portrayed cover a wide spectrum of opinions, experiences and walks of life, including current and ex-service personnel as well as civilians. The most touching story is that of Dorothy Hajdys-Holman (mother of the naval gay-bashing victim Allen Schindler), who listlessly tells of her son's death at the hands of his naval shipmates and her anguish at not even being able to recognize the body. Equally powerful and unnerving is the saga of Edward Patrick Clayton Jr., a gay former member of the Green Berets who describes his harrowing discharge, in which he was beaten, raped and infected by an HIV positive soldier before being released through the camp's back entrance 19 miles away from the nearest pay phone. The stories are all powerful, no matter which side of the issue they take, although most fall into the pro side of the argument. One of the most thought provoking characters is Miriam Ben Shalom, a self-described "Jew lesbo from the Midwest" who was discharged in 1976 for being a lesbian and was the first gay person to be reinstated into the U.S. Military in 1987. Towards the end of her segment, she states bitterly, "This whole mess started because I was asked, 'Sgt. Ben-Shalom, are you a homosexual?' I couldn't lie; it's against my code of conduct and ethics." Now a gay activist, she ends her testimony by noting that it all boils down to speech; more specifically truth versus lying.
And that is the crux of Asking And Telling, namely the hypocrisy in the way our Military supposedly reveres honor above everything else, yet forces some of its best and brightest to lie in order to serve. The show made me angry, made me think, made me reevaluate my ideas, and made me realize that I have evolved: in short, it did everything good theater can and should do. A month ago, this play would not have had the same effect. Sure, I would have admired its well-written structure, the sharp direction by Joe Mantello, the smooth chameleon-like manner in which Marc becomes the characters, and the way Marc portrays his subjects without commenting on them or their positions and never sets them up for an easy laugh or cheap pathos. However, recent events have made it harder hitting and more personal, as the central dictum of that horrid "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy resonates and impacts on many levels since it applies to issues ranging from The Boy Scouts to even donating blood in the wake of the WTC tragedy (where yours truly and thousands of other patriotic souls were turned away because, like Sgt. Ben-Shalom, we are unable to lie when asked). With the Pentagon reversing earlier reports that it would suspend discharges based on sexual orientation, the men and women who voluntarily serve the country they love, despite being treated like the enemy, represent the truest and most selfless form of patriotism and make Another American: Asking and Telling most relevant and resonant indeed.
Another American: Asking and Telling runs through October 26th at Seattle Repertory Theatre. For more information visit www.seattlerep.org.
Once again, Johnny Tremain, the Newberry Award winning story by Esther Forbes, is at the height of relevance and history. Forbes began writing her novel on December 8, 1941, the day after the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, and published it in 1943 when we were fully engaged in World War II. She has stated that she wanted to write about a teenager caught up in the events and passions that led to the American Revelation since "the success of all wars has rested so heavily on the sense and responsibility and manhood of this age group. In peacetime they are treated like children and in time of war are expected to act like men." And thus, she wanted to give an example to those youths of similar patriots from America's early years.
Johnny Tremain (solidly and sympathetically played by Alban Dennis) starts out as an apprentice to a silversmith, but an accident renders him disabled and cast out to fend for himself. In his struggle for survival and sustenance, he seeks out Master Lyte (Peter Crook), an aristocratic Tory whom Johnny has been told is a relation, but who falsely accuses him of theft and tries to get him convicted and hanged. Luckily, Johnny has made a friend in Rab (the very energetic and humorous Hans Haltwies), a newspaperman and rebel who helps save Johnny's skin and invites him to join the cause of Independence.
Director Rita Giomi has crafted a smoothly flowing work that rarely dwells on the gloomier aspects of the story (although the first half of the first act could use some leavening, as one starts to wonder what other tragedies can befall poor Johnny). The set by Carey Wong is spare and simple and handily evokes the early Colonial Puritan collage look and is well utilized by Giomi's direction and Rick Paulsen's light design.
While the ending is a bit of a letdown and does not become the effective capper to the piece that it should be, overall Johnny Tremain is a well-written and well acted show that subtly illustrates the evolution of patriotism; a handy lesson in these turbulent times.
Johnny Tremain runs through October 27 at the Charlotte Martin Theatre at the Seattle Children's Theatre. For more information, visit www.sct.org.- Jonathan Frank