by Ryan Leeds
For the compassionate theater critic—and yes, they do exist—Shades is a theatrical quandary. On one hand, it is unfair to dismiss it as a piece of theater that isn’t worth the time and investment. Certainly there are those for whom this piece will resonate. In fact, the last 15 minutes of the show is rather heartbreaking and poignant. On the other hand, this story of a family reeling from the traumas of war is a sluggish exercise of enduring poor playwriting and for the seasoned theatergoer, it is primarily a forced melodrama in need of some serious surgery.
Paula J. Caplan’s play occurs in 1997 in the home of a Don (Carson Lee), a Vietnam veteran who denies that Agent Orange is the cause of his chronic lung illness. Even in the face of doctors finding E.coli in his lungs, he is insistent that the U.S. government has not lied about the dangers of the popular defoliant used in the war. His sister, Val (Ashley Wren Collins), a home nurse aide, is strongly suspicious about his illness and uses the name of this bacterial strain in her dialogue so often, Caplan must think that her audience either fell asleep or couldn’t hear the first several references.
Val and Don’s father, Jerry (Hal Robinson), is a kindly World War II veteran who is hesitant to speak about the war because he doesn’t believe he has anything noteworthy to say. Now a widower, he mostly reminisces about his late wife:
“Oh, hey kids, you know what a go-getter your Mom was? Just before her trip, she called the city archivist and told her World War II vets would all be dead soon, and I’d have free time while she was traveling, so the archivist should interview me!”
This is only a sampling of the forced, unrealistic dialogue that runs rampant over the course of two hours.
Jerry presses on and there are numerous sequences when he spends lengthy monologues speaking into a camera, recalling his early days as a soldier. While honoring veterans and their stories is noble and respectful, his stories tend to drone on more than they captivate. Caplan may have been wise to take a page from Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, a series of memoirs collected by a group of men and women who Brokaw considers “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” Jerry speaks objectively about his service but is pressed by Val and the archivist to describe his feelings. Most people know and respect the unwritten rule that one never questions veterans about their war experiences. Apparently not the team behind this play.
Meanwhile, Val is caring for June. (Holly Walker), an African-American paraplegic who is also a Vietnam War veteran. The two have a seemingly homoerotic relationship with one another, which builds to an odd climax. Val invites June to dinner with the hope that she will find common ground with her fellow Vietnam Vet, Don.
The major problems with Shades is the lack of nuance and subtly. The characters are clichéd and rarely believable. With an inevitable death looming, Don suggests—at least twice—that, “Life is a gift.” I could not agree more, but pithy writing like this seems inspired more by quotes on embroidered pillows than by human conversation. In addition, nearly every family outburst and tense argument is smoothed over by an awkward suggestion for a glass of water or food.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an unfortunate affliction suffered by too many brave men and women who sacrificed all they had for their country. However, the list is long of titles that have tackled this in an effective and powerful way. On stage, Donald Margulies’ searing portrait of a war photojournalist in Time Stands Still immediately comes to mind. Two recent movies about soldiers re-acclimating to real life, The Hurt Locker and American Sniper bring raw emotions front and center in a manner that neither sugar coats nor falsifies the experience. Basetrack Live, which is currently touring nationally, approaches the subject matter using multimedia and 21st century theatricality.
Caplan is a noted clinical and research psychologist who obviously has a great deal of empathy for the topic and her subjects. I admire her attempt to capture this on stage and do not wish the minimize the healing effect that this work might have for veterans and their families. For seasoned consumers of entertainment, however, it will be a slight slice of life.
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Through December 17
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.