North Coast Repertory Theatre spends an evening with three wartime “Heroes”
You might think that three old World War I veterans sitting around talking wouldn’t be very dramatic. And you’d be right. But “Heroes” has other things to offer.
Tony and Oscar-winning playwright Tom Stoppard adapted a 2003 French play, “Le Vent des Peupliers” (The Wind in the Poplars), and his effort earned the 2006 Olivier Award (London’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tony) for Best New Comedy.
It’s really a deft character study that examines the humor and occasional hopelessness of aging, boredom, disability and the specter of death. Though the names and setting are French (1959, in the French countryside), there’s a timeless universality to the piece.
Three very disparate gentlemen, in class and temperament, regularly meet on “their” terrace, to kibbitz and quibble, needle and support each other – and plan their escape from the nun-run old soldiers’ home where they’re confined.
Mild-mannered Henri (amiable Ray Reinhardt), who has a bum leg and an eye for young ladies, has been in the facility for 25 years. Philippe (amusing Jonathan McMurtry), who blacks out regularly due to shrapnel in his skull, is a 10-year resident. He’s pleasant, but a tad paranoid, convinced that Sister Madeleine is offing some of the vets, so no two have a birthday celebration on the same day. The most recent arrival, Gustave (aristocratic Ken Ruta), an upper-crust former officer, is irascible and sometimes unreasonable – and also a little agoraphobic (perhaps a WWI version of PTSD).
Gustave is a take-charge strategist, and he plans their Great Escape – though he has to abandon his daring, romanticized journey to Indochina, and settle for a trek to a distant hill.
Not much happens. The guys may never get to their destination, but they’re inspired by migrating geese to imagine themselves taking flight. And in their fights and frenzies, inspirations and limitations, we learn about their pasts (we know what their future holds: if they don’t look out to the horizon, where poplars sway on the far ridge, the view from the terrace is… the cemetery).
Kind of an “Odd Couple” or “Sunshine Boys” Plus One, the play is a bittersweet slice of late life. The success of the endeavor is highly dependent on the performers that breathe energy into it. Stoppard has provided his usual raft of poetic language. And North Coast Rep artistic director David Ellenstein has assembled a trio of esteemed veterans – with a cumulative 167 years of stage experience.
They take their time (a function of both age and expertise) with the 90-minute play, which is really a trifle, but it grows on you with the re-thinking. The actors surely make the characters and their interactions come poignantly alive.
Scenic designer Marty Burnett has provided a lovely terrace for them – all green and arches and stonework (scenic art by John Finkbiner). The costumes (Renetta Lloyd), sound (Chris Leussmann) and lighting (Matt Novotny) enhance the setting.
True, there isn’t a great deal of action, but that’s kind of the point. We should all be so lucky as to have devoted companions like these to while away our waning hours and share our memories and imaginings.
“Heroes” runs through November 13 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Solana Beach.
Performances are Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 7pm, with matinees Saturday & Sunday at 2pm.
Tickets ($32-49) are available at 858-481-1055 or www.northcoastrep.org