I read this play twice, this is how much I loved it. It is a complex play, unfolding at various level, hitting different emotional tones, from – to use the phrase of Johnny Chastain, one of the two main characters – both “crassly sensitive and crudely sincere”. There are moments where you laugh and moments where you cry.
And it is emphatically not a series of letters from the front that are merely read out (though there is that too in Act II), with soldiers backstage acting out the events recounted in the letters. I have seen that concept used on TV in Europe (on ARTE) to “celebrate” or rather commemorate World War I. The formula works of course, but this play goes well beyond it and is wholly original in its approach.
Act I and Act III are all about the attempts of an established, successful writer-journalist, Katharine Hartgrove, to use a series of letters from the front to construct a play – Katharine is a woman with a heart as big as a house, she is a widow who has lost her husband in World War I, and her only son is presently fighting in Italy, at the end of World War II. To help her, there is Johnny Chastain, an actor and entertainer, temporarily retired or perhaps between two jobs, and the two are clearly in love. The two are also just at the beginning of the relationship and it is clear that it could still go either way, Katharine and Johnny are very different people, she is serious and earnest, he is a bit of a clown. No spoilers, I won’t reveal what happens next, but the story is both suspenseful and satisfyingly romantic.
Yet this is not a light romance comedy, even if it looks like one at times. Bob Rector is able to move you, pulling several strings. First, the letters themselves, the stories they tell, the sincerity, the realism – and in this he needs little help, he has used real letters written by American men and women caught in various wars, from the Civil War to the first Persian Gulf war and what he has done is to choose them expertly and lay them out in Act II in an ascending order of emotions. But he doesn’t stop there, it’s not just a story about war veterans and their letters. Enter Katharine and Johnny. What is profoundly moving is the way the two react to each other and to the letters they read. Their love tryst is like a door opened on the human condition, and along with them, you tremble and cry, as the dialogue between the two throws a deep, probing light in the nature of love and death. As Katharine puts it, “To me, this play isn’t about individual wars or the politics behind them or who was right or who was wrong…It’s about everyday people who suddenly came face to face with their own mortality, or the prospect of losing a loved one. It’s about people reaching out to each other, maybe for the last time.”
That sums it up perfectly, it’s about “reaching out to each other, maybe for the last time.” And when this happens to Katharine herself, you shake and cry with her. So, be ready with your kleenex! I’m not surprised this play was so successful during the 15 years in toured the world, and my only regret is not having seen it on stage, with all the A/V components and the music that go with it. I am sure it makes for an extraordinary theater experience but even the play, as it is here, in printed words, is a pleasure to read. Highly recommended.
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