Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Outside Paducah describes the effect of engagement in combat from three perspectives, each told in a monologue performed by the author. First is an eight-year-old boy whose father is suffering severe PTSD, causing the family to uproot from their small town home to a veterans hospital where the father will receive treatment. Next is a fifty-one year old man whose father absorbed the trauma of combat at Guadalcanal during World War II, and whose son came back from combat in the Middle East unmoored and suicidal. Last, there is a twenty-seven year old Iraq war veteran who fought in the battles at Fallujah and is trying to tamp down addictions that ward off the demons he brought back to the states with him.
Moad is no stranger to this world. He is a veteran Air Force pilot who has flown 100 combat sorties, and his father was a paratrooper in Vietnam. The play began as short stories which Moad wrote through his work with veterans and students as a co-founder of the Minnesota Humanities Center's Veteran's Voices Month project. The three people who tell their stories in Outside Paducah are not actual individuals. Each represents a composite of issues, experiences and perceptions Moad collected in the course of that work. His writing is deeply humane, creating characters that ring true and whose emotions seep into our consciousness, prompting tenderness toward these wounded guys, and dismay at the systems that inflicted their wounds. They reveal themselves not through sweeping statements, but through the large and small tribulations of getting through their days.
The play does not preach that war is inherently wrong or always avoidable, only that, be it right or wrong, it extracts a terrible toll from those on the front lines. As a society, we have not adequately addressed the price being paid, nor are the men and women in uniform clear on the difference their service makes. The veteran who returns from Iraq in 2007 thought he was fighting to make things better for the folks back home; instead he finds the nation enter the worst recession since the depression, and his small hometown is all but boarded upthe only businesses remaining are the tavern and the mortuary. The young boy believes his home is haunted by the ghost of his great, great, great, great grandpa who killed himself after fighting in the Civil War. He plays at war with his best friend, a benign fantasy of pain-free battles, even as he begins to grasp through his father's inability to function that the game and the real thing are not alike.
Outside Paducah marks playwright Moad's first time out as an actor. He made a spectacular debut, giving each of the characters a whole life and specific point of view. At times the southern accent was a bit thick to follow, but when the words were muffled, his tone and bearing always communicated. Credit goes also to Leah Cooper whose direction provided smooth pacing, with time to absorb the weight of what was being shared, without losing momentum.
Though the show played for only one weekend, an expert creative team was assembled to give it a shine. Carl Schoenborn's simple set design provided the yard and porch for the young boy, the tavern for the veteran, and a bank office where the father told his story to a banker as he begged for a personal loan to get himself back on his feet. A. Emily Heaney designed suitable costumes that reflected each character, and Erin Belpedio's lighting distinguished the present from recollections of past events. Katherine Horowitz's sound design provided background ambient noiseschatter and music in the bar, crickets at night in the boy's front yardthat heightened the sense of reality in each segment. Each segment was introduced with slides that portrayed the environment in which the play is set, revealing the sense of loss and decay that inhabit the region.
The title, Outside Paducah, refers to the setting of these vignettes, in and around Paducah, Kentucky and Cairo, Illinois. It is a territory where Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois meet, described in the play as "the tip of the spear" between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. During the Civil War it was a region torn between sides, officially with the Union, but with strong leanings to Southern life and culture, a place where the sides of conflict are blurry and it's hard to know where good resides. It is also a region of the country that has been brutally reduced by every cycle of recession, without ever having a recovery. It seems a perfect setting to document the after-shocks a war fought thousands of miles away unleashes on the folks back home.
Gremlin Theatre has had a low profile over the past year. It is to their credit that they stepped forward to produce Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home. I hope this is a sign that we will be seeing more from Gremlin, a theater company with a long history or excellent, accessible work. I hope, too, that this is just the first of many productions for Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home, a play that has an essential message, told with insight and compassion.
Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home, a Gremlin Theatre production, played November 10 13, 2016, in the Black Box Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, MN. For information on Gremlin Theatre, go to gremlin-theatre.org.
Writer: J. A. Moad II; Director: Leah Cooper; Design/Technical Director: Carl Schoenborn; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney; Lighting Design: Erin Belpedio; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Properties Design: Amy Reddy; Production Stage Manager: Sarah Bauer; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen.
Cast: J.A. Moad II (an 8-year-old Son/a 51-year-old Father/ a 27-year-old Veteran)