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Chicago by John Olson

Last of the Boys by Steven Dietz
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Last of the Boys
John Judd and Tracy Letts
Will the baby boomers ever let go of the Ď60s? Itís a question frequently asked by those of other generations. The answer in a word is no, and Steven Dietzís new play does much to explain why the era and the war that sparked so much of its conflict and inspired so much of its art just wonít go away. The play, which premiered last year at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, concerns two Vietnam War veterans approaching age sixty. Jeeter (John Judd) is a university professor who reveres Bob Dylan and is following a Rolling Stones tour, holding up a handmade sign reading ďStop NowĒ at each concert. (Stop touring, presumably before they die of heart attacks.) Jeeterís staying with his old friend and war buddy Ben (Tracy Letts), who lives alone in a trailer on a former Superfund waste site somewhere in the central California wilderness.

Though heís known Ben for decades, and stays with him every summer, thereís much Jeeter doesnít know or understand about Ben. Why did Ben remain estranged from his father, who had been an aide to Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and fail to attend his funeral? Why does he keep a clean white shirt ironed when he lives alone in a hot sweaty climate and is never seen in anything other than dirty tank tops or plaid flannel?

Salyer, a 35-year-old woman (Mariann Mayberry) who Jeeter met on his way to Michigan for Benís fatherís funeral, returns to California with Jeeter. She quickly comes to understand Benís mysteries. Daughter of a young soldier slain in Vietnam, she is equally haunted by the war that took the life of the father she never met and shares Benís demons. Her mother Lorraine (Amy Morton), who was traveling with Salyer when she met Jeeter, rejoins the pair at Benís home and like Salyer, figures out Ben far more easily than Jeeter has been able to. With their assistance, the audience learns more about Benís identification with McNamara, who initially supported the war as Defense Secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, but later came to doubt its wisdom. Ben is haunted by the immense suffering the war visited on the Vietnamese as well as the Americans, and unable to reconcile its realities with the presumably honorable intentions of those who supported it.

Last of the Boys is more of a journey for the audience than for the characters, as we slowly are able to understand the enduring psychic wounds inflicted upon them by the Vietnam War. In its baroque imagery as well as its movement between present reality, memory and fantasy, it is to the Vietnam War what Angels in America was to the AIDS crisis. The secrets that bring us into the hearts of the characters are revealed slowly, as are the explanations of the seemingly fantastical elements of the stage action. Though a play that spends 80 minutes on setup only to deliver 20 minutes of payoff can try oneís patience, as this one does, the construction gradually sucks us in to make us learn new perspectives on an old topic. Even the familiar songs played over the action - Bob Dylan singing ďA Hard Rainís a Gonna FallĒ and the Stones doing ďGimme Shelter,Ē have new and heartbreaking resonance.

Tracy Letts masterfully underplays Ben, a character who doesnít want to talk about much of anything but is all dry wit when he does. Letts moves effectively into Benís moments of fantasy, when he imagines himself as McNamara, and eventual rage. As Jeeter, John Judd has in some ways the more complex character. Jeeter is trying (and partially succeeding) in being not only a 22-year-old in a 60-year old body, but a 1960s flower child in the 21st century. Heís a University professor who is otherwise clueless - lacking the wisdom for self-awareness or intuitive understanding of others. Judd communicates these qualities, but the production suffers from the lack of a stage presence in this role as large as Letts in order for Jeeter to serve as a proper foil for Ben. As the daughter and mother, Mariann Mayberry and Amy Morton are as hard and tough as the old soldiers, as if injected with shots of virtual testosterone. Rick Snyderís direction has a hyper-masculine tone that suits Dietzís script and uncompromisingly refuses to soften any edges.

Todd Rosenthalís set is a landscape of dreamlike desolation, combining the California desert with the battlefields of Southeast Asia. Changes from present to past, reality to fantasy, and California to Asia are aided by Ann Wrightsonís lighting design. Costumes designed by Janice Pytel express the individuality of these unorthodox characters.

Though I may have found the productionís theatricality a bit excessive, comments from the audience members who stayed for a post-show discussion indicated that the piece resonated with them deeply. Baby boomers, as well as people apparently older or slightly younger than that generation, spoke movingly of the deep and irreparable mental scarring of war on its soldiers, and of comparisons to the current American involvement in Iraq. Steppenwolf Artistic Associate Jessica Thebus said there would be post-show discussions after most performances of Last of the Boys, because the company felt audiences might need the opportunity to process it collectively. To borrow from Simon and Garfunkel, it seems the troubled waters of the Vietnam era have neither been calmed nor entirely bridged.

Last of the Boys runs until November 13, 2005 in the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. For tickets, visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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