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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 17, 2016

Carson Lee, Holly Walker, Ashley Wren Collins,
and Hal Robinson
Photo by PJ Norton

"Thank you for your service" can be an honest expression of gratitude for members of the military. Or it can be a dismissive brush-off directed at former soldiers who, with discharge papers in hand, are left to their own devices to deal with any residual issues their experiences have burdened them with. Such is the position in which two Vietnam vets find themselves, in playwright Paula J. Caplan's Shades, opening tonight at the Studio at Cherry Lane Theatre.

Actually, there are three veterans in the play, which takes place in 1997. Jerry (performed with great polish by Hal Robinson), who fought in World War II, is about to retire from the restaurant business and wants his son Don (Carson Lee), one of the play's Vietnam vets, to take it on. Right now, however, Don is in poor health, suffering from a lung disease that his sister Val (Ashley Wren Collins) is convinced was brought on by his exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, widely used as a defoliant in the jungles of Vietnam. That the government denies any such connection infuriates her to no end.

Val, a nurse, serves as the linchpin that holds together the various elements of the play. She is helping to care for Don and another vet of the same war, June (Holly Walker). June is paralyzed from the neck down, having been caught in a grenade explosion. Val is also a recent widow of yet another Vietnam vet and is struggling to come to terms with her personal grief.

As you might imagine, the playwright, Ms. Caplan, has filled the play with multiple problems regarding the emotional and physical toll of war, and of the lack of quality care for veterans needing support upon their return to civilian life. While she has written several other plays (and has garnered awards for them), Ms. Caplan also is a clinical psychologist who has worked with and written extensively about the plight of veterans. Her experiences factor extensively into the plot, which is bursting at the seams with quality-of-life, political, and social justice issues.

The cast members, under Alex Keegan's direction, do well with roles that essentially serve to present the playwright's urgent message. Holly Walker, best known as a comic and writer for the former The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, is excellent as June, bringing a sense of quiet dignity to her portrayal of the proud vet. Hal Robinson infuses his performance as Jerry with a naturalistic quality, showing us a depth of emotion that the play needs more of in order to pull back from making us feel a bit like we are in a lecture hall.

While Shades is set two decades ago, it should ring out as a cry for help for the veterans of today's wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Veterans return home in need of a wide array of medical, psychological, and economic services that would allow them to continue as fully contributing members of society. It is understandable that the play pounds home the point that these needs are too often unmet. Nevertheless, as a theatrical work, it could do with a more realistically human touch, perhaps through the introduction of an antagonistic character representing the government's position. Despite the heated issues it raises, Shades needs less talking and more dramatic heat to fire up its audience.

Through December 17
The Studio at Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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