Post-Vietnam drama mesmerizes at CRT

Reviewed by Lee Shepherd

I sat glued to every moment of Ken Burns’ masterful documentary The Vietnam War, then capped it off by attending opening night (Friday, Sept. 29) of Chenango River Theatre’s powerful production of The Speed of Darkness.

“Gripping” describes both documentary and play. They go glove-in-hand, both revealing secrets that cry out to see the light of day.

The Speed of Darkness by Steve Tesich received its world premiere in 1989 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and had its Broadway premiere two years later. Cast members received Tony Award nominations.

In a nutshell: a malign, invisible force threatens the life of Joe, a Mr. Middle America who is, in fact, a finalist for South Dakota’s “Man of the Year.” Joe, played by Jody O’Neil, has built a stable and admirable life for himself as a prosperous business contractor who lives in a beautiful home with his wife, Anne, and 17-year-old daughter, Mary, played respectively by Kristyn Koczur and Amy Crossman.

But from the first monologue, delivered by Daniel Bender Stern as Eddie, Mary’s boyfriend, we know that an evil back story threatens. What’s worse, the darkness doesn’t come from the obvious: — Lou (David Sitler), a homeless Vietnam buddy who shows up on Joe’s doorstep. The dark force comes from within Joe. He’s a ticking time bomb.

Act One lulls us into complacency and, in fact, has many funny and poignant moments. But the slow and steady hints of doom build and accumulate until, moving with the speed of a freight train, all is revealed and lives derail.

I can’t say more without spoiling the shocking conclusion of the plot. All I can say is that, when the final lights came up, I sat stunned and had forgotten I was sitting in a theater.

The cast of The Speed of Darkness is first rate. You can empathize with each and every character; they are utterly believable. Crossman alternates teenage angst with spunkiness. Koczur portrays the loving, protective wife to a “T.” Stern channels an innocent, hero-worshipping young man perfectly, then serves as the Greek Chorus, with foreboding messages that book-end the play.

A consummate actor, O’Neil masterfully peeled away the layers of coverup that his character had perfected as a model citizen. At the climax of the play, as “Joe’s” life unraveled, O’Neil’s desperation exploded into a complete emotional breakdown. It was so real that it was excruciating to watch.

Sitler’s portrayal of Lou deserves special mention. He is self-effacing, disarming, funny, pitifully damaged — a forlorn pilgrim who has been following the Vietnam Wall Memorial exhibit as it crisscrosses the country. Sitler embodies Lou — literally. He can’t stand still, he talks non-stop, he can’t focus. While he might be the house guest that makes everyone uncomfortable, his need for love and family is endearing. His gratefulness for small blessings (regular meals, for instance) makes you want to cry.

One story Lou tells will stick with me for a long time. At his first visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, he tries to etch him name alongside those who died. A Marine tries to drag him away, insisting the names on the wall are only for those who died, not for survivors. Lou says, “I swear to you, I didn’t survive.” For this, he earns his 30 seconds of fame: the incident is reported in a short newspaper account.

Although Crossman was previously seen at CRT, other cast members are making their debut in this production. I hope they all will be cast in future plays.

A special mention goes to E.D. Intemann for clever lighting design. With total darkness between scenes, spotlights dramatically direct the audience to characters in their best and worst moments. The teens’ ’60s fringed hippie costumes are a nice touch and a real blast from the past (credit to costume designer Barbara Kahl).

A sincere thank you goes to director Bill Lelbach for his highly effective staging and for premiering this timely play in the region.

IF YOU GO: Performances continue 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 15 at CRT, 991 State Route 12, Greene. Details: Visit www.chenangorivertheatre.org.

 

 

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