As American Sniper so recently reminded us, war doesn’t always end when men and women come home from the battlefield. Shattered minds, post-traumatic stress disorder, emotional torment that engulfs families can cause ongoing damage in the lives of those who fought and those who love them.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson explored the ripple effects of war in his last play to be produced on Broadway, 1993’s Redwood Curtain. Fort Lauderdale’s Primal Forces has mounted a new production of the show, the last in a season devoted to works examining the impact of 1960s and ‘70s counterculture on younger generations.
Key scenes in the 90-minute play take place among the giant, ancient redwood trees near the college town of Arcata, in Northern California. Primal Forces presents its work at Andrews Living Arts, one of the smallest theater spaces in Broward, so you wonder: How the heck do you suggest a dense stand of redwoods on that tiny stage? Answer: Hire Tim Bennett.
Miraculously, the designer conjures massive tree trunks in an unsettling woods, as well as the car, coffee shop and music room needed for other scenes. David Hart’s sound design and Robert D. Nation’s lighting work their magic too, so that the young central character can summon a sudden bout of thunder and lightning, or another character’s unseen dog feels real enough that you half expect it to come bounding into the space, some unlucky critter dangling from its mouth.
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That first character, 17-year-old piano prodigy Geri Riordan (Amarie Lee), is on a restless quest to find the Vietnam veteran who was her biological father. Born in Vietnam and adopted by a wealthy Southern California family as an infant, Geri is chafing at her early success and the heightened expectations it brings. She’s determined to answer that fundamental question — who am I, really? — and if it takes roaming the woods where troubled veterans take refuge, so be it.
In the forest near the home of her aunt Geneva (Laura Turnbull), Geri tracks and confronts Lyman Fellers (Ethan Henry), whose wartime specialty was blowing up bridges. Lyman’s voice is raw from hollering at his dog (and maybe at the voices in his head), but it’s his psyche that has been torn apart. As he later tells Geri and Geneva, he can’t stand to be among people anymore. His dog and the trees are enough.
Understandably, Geneva is distressed by this latest father candidate Geri has found. Lyman can be violent, something we see in his first encounter with Geri, and he’s clearly disturbed. But through plot twists, turns and detours, most notably one involving Geneva and her husband being forced to sell their massive stand of redwoods, playwright Wilson navigates his way to a twist of an ending.
Redwood Curtain contains some good, perceptive writing, but it’s not too surprising that the play lasted for just 40 performances on Broadway. It simply isn’t in a league with Talley’s Folly, Fifth of July, Burn This and Wilson’s other great plays.
Director Keith Garsson has two strong actors in Henry and Turnbull, but newcomer Lee can’t match the stage veterans’ expertise and multifaceted work. She gets Geri’s chattiness, occasional petulance and penchant for making things up, but though she should be captivating and a little mysterious, she comes off like a student still trying to master her torrent of dialogue.
Henry, commanding even in his stillness, makes Lyman a sometimes-frightening force of nature. A plot point involving eye color requires him to wear one tinted contact (as does Lee), and that makes his appearance even more unnerving. Encountering Henry’s beyond-intense Lyman in the woods, most people would run the other way. But obsessive Geri isn’t most people.
Turnbull, the winner of several Carbonell Awards, is spirited, funny and nuanced as the woman who helps unravel the mystery of Geri’s past. Though Geneva has a disturbing little strain of racism flowing through her — she tells her Asian-American niece, “I don’t understand those rice cultures,” then later finds an Asian woman’s English pronunciation uproarious (though that sets up another piece of the plot) — Turnbull is subtle and masterful in crafting her character.
Redwood Curtain isn’t top-shelf Wilson. But its themes — the hellish aftermath of war, the search for hidden truths — are relevant and resonant.
If you go
What: ‘The Redwood Curtain’ by Lanford Wilson.
Where: Primal Forces production at Andrews Living Arts, 23 NW Fifth St., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Cost: $25 ($12.50 for veterans).
Information: 866-811-4111 or www.primalforcesproductions.com.