Live theater affords great opportunities to rattle the viewer, sometimes in its examination of challenging subject matter, but other times through pure, acute expression of a character's substantial pain. Both are felt in playwright Steven Dietz's take on the veterans and casualties of the Vietnam War, Last of the Boys; however, as directed by Frannie Shepherd-Bates, it's the latter that particularly resonates. This Magenta Giraffe Theatre production is a challenging one, its two and a half hours concerned with lives whose stunted sense of normalcy, even decades after the emotional injury, feels undeserved and unfair.
A deserted, late-century California trailer park is home to Ben (Dave Davies), who is visited every summer by longtime friend and fellow veteran Jeeter (Alan Madlane). The relationship between the two men sets the tone for the rest of the production; their shared cultural touchstones bleed over into the personal with respect to the men's differing reactions to the death of Ben's father. Ben professes to be a carpenter but seems to mostly exist outside of the grind, whereas Jeeter is a celebrated academic who has a penchant for younger women and a very unusual reason for following the Rolling Stones on tour. Vietnam is largely folded into Jeeter's grander remembrance of The '60s, a decade since unmatched and affording him no small amount of cachet among students and paramours; Madlane's take on the living time capsule is energetic and grounded in gentle comedy. The viewer later meets Jeeter's most recent one and only, Salyer (Lisa Melinn), and her domineering, protective mother, Lorraine (Linda Rabin Hammell). The four make up a tight ensemble cast, playing equally well in every permutation.
What happens in the present, however, is liberally clouded by events of the past. Even Gwen Lindsay's set uses sandbags and camouflage netting as a backdrop, the physical embodiment of the devastating history carried around by the characters. Moreover, Dietz pushes the boundaries of his story by introducing a supernatural element; as The Young Soldier, Matt Lockwood is exacting and roughly officious and armed to the teeth with deadly hindsight. Most of his implacable interactions are aimed at Ben, who conflates past and present by stepping into the role of much-derided Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, onetime boss and hero to his late father. Underscored by Jesse Shepherd-Bates's gorgeous original distorted psychedelic score, Davies shows the torture of following the party line of an unwinnable war, while remaining true to Ben's conflicted feelings as a victim of political strategy as well as an uncertain McNamara apologist. Impossibly slow and contemplative, the sequences are steeped in symbolism and ritual to overall bewitching effect.
What the soldier represents initially seems less important than the fact of his existence; however, the perspective changes when Salyer sees him, too. Dressed something like a shapeless Victorian widow (courtesy of Lauren Montgomery's sharp costume design), Melinn brings to life a woman whose confidence and vibrancy masks deep emotional scars, whose embarrassed caginess about her clothing evolves into a need to fit her own story into a larger narrative. As the mother whose unrequited anger and secrecy serves as Salyer's scapegoat, Lorraine's relationship to the war is well tamped down but just as unfinished, and Hammell elegantly plays the beats of a parent who recognizes her role in the wrong decisions her child has made and ingests some, but not all, of the blame heaped upon her.
Shepherd-Bates honors the struggle of her characters, but also takes pains to show them engaging in regular life and supportive relationships. A fireside scene — a fine showpiece of Neil Koivu's lighting design — is calm and friendly in its relaxed affinity, then all the more withering when it becomes apparent how close-lurking the past can be for these characters. Viewers willing to venture into Last of the Boys should expect massive doses of intellectual and emotional stimulation, but not all of it is dire. Alternately light, mournful, funny, and eerie, this fine production is disarming even as it connects.