While VP candidate Sarah Palin tries to identify supposed liberal, anti-American commun-ities within our borders (talkin' 'bout you, Cleveland Heights), other Americans continue to serve their country in Iraq. And whether you think that war is the most colossal, arrogant, mind-numbingly misbegotten blunder in our history or not, you have to acknowledge the people who are laying their lives on that line.
In the new play Goldstar, Ohio, written by Cleveland native Michael Tisdale and now playing at Cleveland Public Theatre, the personal tragedy is told from the point of view of four Ohio families who, like 18 others from Ohio, lost their sons in the Iraq War during the first week of August 2005. The series of events sent shock waves through the state. And this play is a somber and, by turns, funny tribute to those soldiers and their families. But there is a difference between a stirring tribute and a successful theatrical performance. And on the last score, this production is a mixed bag.
Taken from interviews Tisdale conducted with the families, Goldstar has all the credibility one could desire. The parents and siblings of soldiers Daniel "Nathan" Deyarmin Jr., Bradley Harper, Justin Hoffman and Nate Rock share their feelings about the deceased, reflecting on the reservists' varied personalities.
These stories are told in bits and pieces during the first part of act one, as the families respond to questions from the playwright (who is played by his brother Chuck Tisdale). Director Andy Paris keeps his actors, most of whom play multiple roles, moving almost constantly, which creates some confusion (is that Nate or Nathan we're talking about?).
But it doesn't really matter, since these unique yet predictably ordinary lives terminate in a chillingly effective moment, when the four caster-equipped front door units that have been rolled around as props suddenly start ringing. People are pushing doorbells. They're in uniform. And it's not good news.
By choosing to construct the play as a series of non-fiction personal recollections, like The Laramie Project, Tisdale relies on the family members to convey the horror of war. But since they weren't involved, they can only register the pain of premature loss that is the same whether a loved one died in battle, from illness or by accident. Aside from one mother's momentary rage at President Bush, there is little anger, just helpless sadness. And when the interviewer brings up his elderly father's death after a long illness, which occurred during the same week that the four soldiers died, it seems irrelevant to the play's theme involving the shattering impact of war.
These weaknesses overtake the play in an overlong act two. With a pile of doors on the floor symbolizing the tumult in these families, the lack of any dramatic arc becomes painfully obvious. And the performances begin to grate, since director Paris evidently instructed his eight-member cast to deliver their lines in a choppy approximation of spontaneous "real folk" speech. Still, Bob Goddard, Justin Tatum, Jill Levin and Sarah Marcus manage to create several very affecting moments.
In all, Goldstar, Ohio is an honorific work that's well-deserved by those soldiers and their families. But the real horrors that this specific war imposes on those involved remain frustratingly offstage.
Goldstar, Ohio Through November 8 Cleveland Public Theatre 6415 Detroit Ave. 216.631.2727