IF I DIE IN A COMBAT ZONE, BOX ME UP AND SHIP ME HOME
Book-It Repertory Theatre, Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th, 325-6500, $19 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sun. ends Sun., April 28
"A TRUE WAR STORY is never moral," veteran Tim O'Brien writes in If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, and since he's reflecting on Vietnam, that large black mark on the American cultural psyche, we believe him. If I Die . . . is a predecessor to O'Brien's celebrated The Things They Carried, and it further elaborates his wrenching tour of duty in America's greatest military debacle—an event so free of clear values that it's given historical revision every few years.
Book-It's stage production of the book, however, can't quite get to a place of storytelling without moralizing, because director/adapter David Quicksall's production doesn't sink into the mud of the war; it feels clean, heartfelt, and literary, but something less than O'Brien's grieving prose would like.
That isn't to say that Quicksall hasn't tried. Craig Wollam's set—a stark, simple battleground with curtained layers of army netting backed by a glowing scrim—gives Quicksall room to play with sober tableux (the quiet horror of a Vietnamese nurse's accidental shooting is affecting) and marching silhouettes. And the script does well to highlight O'Brien's graceful, trenchant observations about his war's particulars, from the golden-hued nostalgia that gave it root in America's young men ("We were our fathers") to the reasons behind horrific, seemingly inhuman outbursts like the massacre at My Lai ("Pure hate is good").
But Quicksall hasn't effectively built the theatrical companion to O'Brien's literary voice, a stage world that can contain both mundane horror and poetic reflections on that horror. O'Brien's tales of "aimlessly shooting just to shoot" in a milieu ruled by "the combination of certainty and uncertainty" don't lend themselves to carefully blocked movement and thoughtful posturing. Unlike other Book-It productions, dividing up narrative into shared character dialogue doesn't work, either, because O'Brien's elegant philosophical inquiries are floating just above the mire; to place his poetic concerns down into the haphazard trenches of combat makes them sound like platitudes and proselytizing. The result is stiff and more than a bit sluggish.
The large cast, fighting the lack of real tension, is working hard against the odds. An impassioned David S. Hogan, as O'Brien, can't overcome his mouthpiece role, and even a buff, biting Tim Gouran ends up barking and posing nobly as a gruff soldier named Mad Mark. Playing a drunk and brutally deluded major, Jim Gall creates the only fully conceived look at an actual human being.
This is that rare Book-It show that remains solidly bound between the book's covers, without the dark, messy life that should accompany any attempt to re-create such a terrifyingly vivid human experience.