Shine a light on Vietnam’s long shadow.
My brother returned from his service during the Vietnam War about 50 years ago, but it continues to haunt even the most mundane aspects of his daily life. An example: when we go to the cinema together, he must sit in the last row, in the aisle, and he must have a clear line of sight to at least two exits. Or another: he is strained at the sound of a helicopter.
Playwright Bernard Clancy has served in Vietnam and, through a long association with veterans organizations over the past five decades. have a thorough understanding of PTSD and related issues facing Australian personnel upon return to civilian life,
Adding to the small but rich pool of post-Vietnam Australian coins, Clancy’s Spirit Foxholes has several characteristics that distinguish it.
First, it broadens the scope of inquiry to encompass the experience of personnel assigned to more recent conflicts. Based on this, he incorporates a Vietnamese character, Nigel (David Lih), not as the ghostly specter of past horrors, but rather as a companion suffering from PTSD, as Nigel served in the ADF in Afghanistan.
Too, Spirit Foxholes is not limited to the personal, domestic or political examination of PTSD, but rather encompasses all of these aspects, as well as, more broadly, treatment.
Scenes from a fragile domestic relationship – him, Frank (Peter Finlay), a vet with explosive anger issues and a reluctance to admit there is a problem, and her, Trish (Joanne Davis), a very suffering – alternate with scenes of group therapy, attended by a number of Vietnam veterans and led by the brilliant young psychologist Mark (Victor Gralak).
Nigel, the Vietnamese character, joins the group. In something of a missed opportunity, the tension created by his arrival resolves quickly and easily. Conversely, it fulfills a valuable function in expressing the various concerns of Afghan ex-combatants. Sheila (Maureen Hartley) performs a similar function which, as a former Army nurse, provides the perspective of women in conflict. I don’t want to dismiss these roles as just functional: both are well written and heavily fleshed out by the actors.
The group therapy scenes are informative, interesting, and always engaging, even though the treatment process is necessarily truncated and some veterans seem to manage to resolve their issues a bit too easily. Less engaging are the domestic scenes, which stagnate early on and, for lack of any real dramatic construction, collapse into a pure soap opera by the excessively long final scene.
Directed by Wolf Heidecker, the production is uneven. Production values are low. No designer is credited for the random set; the lighting is routine and the sound design particularly clumsy. The scene changes in power outages seem dated and awkward. A climactic scene played far up the stage in almost total darkness is inaudible and impenetrable. (Spoiler: someone dies. I assumed it was one character, but it turned out to be another. Maybe I was meant to be thinking the wrong thing? I honestly don’t know. The scene was incomprehensible.)
Peter Finlay in the lead role of Frank gives a beautiful, inconspicuous performance as the Man Next Door: a friendly, funny charmer who barely manages to hold back his demons. Finlay brings familiarity and reality to this difficult role – we know this guy! Her resonant voice, alternately cream and thunder, is a particular pleasure of this production.
Adrian Mulraney also plays three beautifully made and distinct veterans. Her vocal and physical achievement of each is flawless, her creation of rounded characters with just a few words and a gesture is admirable, and her transitions between the three elegantly economical. More impressive still, it creates galvanizing emotional moments in tiny and surprising places. It’s a very good performance.
3 stars: ★★★
By Bernard Clancy
Director: Wolf Heidecker
Interpretation: Joanne Davis, Peter Finlay, Adrian Mulraney, Maureen Hartley, Victor Gralak, David Lih
Light / sound design: Richard Lyford-Pike
Presented by Wolf Heidecker Arts Management
The Playhouse, Hobart
May 20-22, 2020
Additional dates: Civic Center Playhouse, Newcastle, May 27-29