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Echoes of War
by Les Gutman
The Mint Theater is justifiably proud of its reputation for unearthing fine older plays that have become "lost" in the progression of time. With these two short plays by J. M. Barrie, it has done so again, and has also hit a lode of particular contemporary resonance.
As the valuable program notes detail, Barrie wrote these two works, among others, as a part of a mission to promote support for the "war to end all wars". Yet they are not plays about war, but rather about parents and the children they send off to war. As we well know today, popular support for a war cause is directly related to the tension between the "gloriousness" of the undertaking, and the brutal realities that flow from it, particularly for the families of those sent in harm's way.
These companion pieces present a distinct progression considering how family members and "their" soldiers view a war. Though putatively intended to foster war patriotism, from our current vantage point they can just as easily be rationalized from a more anti-war perspective.
Though "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals" might be the more entertaining of the two, "The New Word" is perhaps the more interesting. A young man (Aaron Krohn) affects the mantle of manhood in the form of his new military uniform, to the swooning of his mother (Anne-Marie Cusson) and sister (Jenny Strassberg). His relationship with his father (Richard Easton) has always been distant, in an affected way, as if it is expected of the two men. Left alone, they will find their bond: the father recognizing, with a doubly grim satisfaction, that his son is his contribution to the war effort; the son appreciating the same. It's a scene that is poignant and utterly real, exceptionally well played by both.
The premise of "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals" is, by contrast, far-fethched. Four women (Frances Sternhagen, Katherine McGrath, Pat Nesbit and Mary Ellen Ashley, all very fine) have tea and chatter competitively about the relative impressiveness of their sons' involvement in the war. Mrs. Dowey (the one portrayed by the delectable Ms. Sternhagen) has a secret: she has no son, but -- not to be outdone -- has invented one, a Private Dowey whose details she has gleaned from newspaper accounts of the war. When the local pastor happens to meet the putative son (Gareth Saxe) while visiting troops on leave, a "reunion" is arranged; for public consumption, the young Private plays along. As they get to know each other, the cocky Private Dowey practically melts in Mrs. Dowey's motherly embrace. Being an orphan, they are a perfect match, and soon decide he should be her adopted son. She will live to learn what it means to be a war mom. Perhaps it is not realistic, but it nonetheless registers in the hands of two exceptional performances.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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