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Not About Heroes by Stephen MacDonald – Los Angeles Theater Review

 

POETRY IS MISSING FROM PLAY ABOUT POETS

 

picture - Not About HeroesTheater Review

by Tony Frankel 

published July 30, 2010 

 

Not About Heroes

now playing in Los Angeles at The Lounge Theatre 2    

through August 22 

 

Not About Heroes at the Lounge Theatre 2 is the factual, fascinating, and heartrending non-traditional love story between World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Lovers of literature will be enthralled as most of Stephen MacDonald’s play is culled from their poetry and letters; lovers of gay history (in this case, the non-consummated love that dare not speak its name) will be captivated by this Victorian entanglement; and lovers of theatre will be left scratching their heads as to the lack of subtext and nuance necessary for this cerebral play to soar.

 

Well-established poet (and decorated war hero) Sassoon has been confined to a War Hospital for Nervous Disorders in an attempt to keep him out of the public eye after an anti-war letter of his is read before Parliament; soon thereafter, nascent poet Wilfred Owen is admitted for treatment of shell-shock (now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). A huge fan of Sassoon’s work, Owen musters the courage to enter Sassoon’s room with a half dozen copies of Sassoon’s latest book, and engages the well-established poet to inscribe words of wisdom therein. Not only do they share a similar pacifistic conviction and fervor for their art, but Sassoon recognizes Owen’s own talent for writing poetry, and a mentorship is born. This leads to a seventeen-month series of meetings and letters that are well-documented by the two poets. Their friendship seems to be the stimulus that causes Owen’s genius to blossom (indeed a manuscript copy of Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth containing Sassoon's handwritten amendments survives as testimony to the extent of his influence and is currently on display at London's Imperial War Museum).

 

Ironically, both poets, while writing of their anti-war convictions, heed the call of their own patriotism and reenter the war; Sassoon is non-fatally shot in the head and receives a visit from Owen, who is turning out poetry that would later be compared to the incomparable Keats; sadly, Owen’s work will be published posthumously as he is killed in action seven days before Armistice (both he and Keats passed at 25). Add to this the letters from Owen to Sassoon declaring, “I love you,” and one would think E.M. Forster himself had concocted the story.

 

Director William Hemmer, who has no directing credits in his bio, is to be commended for bringing this tough project to the boards (Heroes is MacDonald’s only play). He succeeds in assembling a smart design team, namely: Garrison Burrell, who pulls off the costumes and props with incredible authenticity; Matt Richter’s seamless lights for nine distinct playing areas on one stationary set; and Jacey Margolis for spot-on dialect coaching. (Less successful are the projected photos upstage with barely discernable scenes of war.)

 

MacDonald’s play is a valiant attempt that, in many ways, succeeds as it bounces back and forth in time, although the scenes where the two poets converse with each other offer richer opportunities for drama than the stagnant reading of letters. But even this slightly problematic script could have been offset by the right actors and a director who helps them discover the many shades and choices needed for us to be involved with these poets. Alas, this is not to be at the Lounge.

 

Starting with the more successful of the two actors: Robert Hardin, as Wilfred Owen, offers glimpses into the depths of his character (he certainly looks the part – all rosy-cheeked enthusiasm); at times, he perfectly embodies the shy, excitable, approval-seeking, charming and acquiescing poet looking for validation and, ultimately, love from what seems like a father figure in Sassoon. Missing are the elements which would have created a well-rounded Owen; his shell-shock, nightmares, passion, desire, and homosexuality seem to be afterthoughts. The world was changing rapidly, but England still damned “sodomites,” and it seems odd that there was little conflict or revelation from Mr. Hardin in this matter (no doubt Mr. Hemmer, the director, assumed that a gentle touch on a knee said it all.)

 

Josh Mann, as Siegfried Sassoon, has a luscious basso profundo voice, well-suited to radio. His performance, however, is simply overwrought. He offers stilted, awkward movement and jarring moments of inorganic emotion. He has no relationship with the many props he handles and he seemed to anticipate Mr. Hardin’s lines. It is unclear whether the character or the actor was emotionless, but I doubt it was the character: Sassoon is mourning friends killed at the front, there is a poet he is counseling that is in love with him, he is a pacifist in war time – there are layers and layers of internal experiences that were left unexamined. The one emotion Mr. Mann nailed was haughtiness.

 

In a preface intended for a book of poems, Owen writes, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” In Not About Heroes, the subject is love and the pity of unrealized love and life. The poetry should be in the acting.

 

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

 

photo by Garrison Burrell

 

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