What’s a little war among friends?
In the right hands, theater can function as a kind of thermometer that calibrates to a precise degree the emotional temperature of the times.
To measure the intensity of public anger at President Lyndon B. Johnson over the Vietnam War, consider “MacBird!’’ a scorching satire that premiered in 1967 and ran for nearly a year in New York. Written by antiwar activist Barbara Garson, “MacBird!’’ accused LBJ of orchestrating the murder of President Kennedy so he could, Macbeth-style, take JFK’s place.
To measure the intensity of public anger at President George W. Bush over the Iraq war, historians may find themselves consulting such plays as Craig Wright’s flawed but engrossing “Lady,’’ which premiered in 2007 and is now receiving an energetic production by Zeitgeist Stage Company.
At present, national passions over Iraq seem to have cooled, but they burn lava-hot in “Lady.’’ Wright gives fervent voice to the antiwar view in his 80-minute drama about three longtime buddies who carry both rifles and relationship baggage into the Illinois woods on their annual hunting trip.
For Dyson (Craig Houk), a professor at a small university, the war has hit home: His 18-year-old son has just announced that he plans to quit college and join the Marines. The lad made that decision after being inspired by a speech at the local Elks Club by Graham (Brett Marks), a Democratic congressman who supports both the war and President Bush.
Caught in the middle is spacy Kenny (Michael Steven Costello), who has brought his loyal dog, Lady, along on the hunting trip. Kenny runs a T-shirt emporium but prefers to spend his days smoking weed and watching Vietnam movies like “Rambo’’ and “Apocalypse Now.’’ As played by Costello, Kenny is an overgrown kid seeking refuge from the grim realities of adulthood, including his wife’s battle with cancer.
As Dyson and Kenny wait for Graham to show up in the woods, Dyson is quivering with fury. (Houk plays him with vein-popping intensity from start to finish.) Not only has Graham been a friend since childhood, it was Dyson who ran his first campaign and helped him get elected. Now, he tells Kenny, Graham is “so hypnotized by his own rhetoric he’s willing to let my kid, the most interesting kid in the world, get killed in the most spurious war in American history.’’ Dyson is not willing to let that happen. Unless Graham calls his son and talks him out of enlisting, Dyson says, he will . . . well, no spoilers here.
Marks offers a quietly sympathetic portrayal of Graham, smartly avoiding the too-easy depiction of the politician as a cartoon villain. “Is it absolutely, perfectly, purely right to be in Iraq right now?’’ Graham says to Dyson. “Honestly? No. But as long as this American Moment lasts, we have to be in charge. We have to defend and spread democracy and freedom. . . .’’ And what about his support for Bush? “He’s the elected leader of our country,’’ says Graham, prompting Dyson to scream: “He’s the stupidest person on earth!’’
Is anyone else hearing echoes of debates from their living rooms, family get-togethers, or workplaces in the past decade?
As a political allegory, it must be said, “Lady’’ is not subtle. Kenny represents the allegedly clueless and quiescent American people, tranquilizing himself with pot while escaping into war-movie fantasies instead of reckoning with the actual war being waged in his - our - name. (Wright billboards his point by having Dyson say: “You’re America, Kenny.’’). When things go catastrophically awry on the hunting trip, Graham goes into full, Bush-ian denial mode, refusing to accept responsibility for what the military might call collateral damage. OK, we get it.
Where “Lady’’ is most potent, in fact, is not in its articulation of the antiwar view or even its framing of arguments about the morality of war, but in its exploration of the bonds - twisted, frayed, resilient, strangely hard to escape - of friendship. Moreover, under the able direction of David J. Miller, these characters prove to have shadings that are not immediately apparent. The most confident-seeming character on the stage might actually be the one who is least willing to face the hard truths about himself, the one who is frozen in position, secretly afraid to move.
In other words, it is the private questions posed by “Lady,’’ not the public ones, that resonate. And that’s something that no historian, nor any thermometer for that matter, can measure.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.