What Contemporary Play Talks About The Vietnam War Through Theater?

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Answered by: Heidi, An Expert in the Theater - General Category
Last of the Boys by Steven Dietz brings four characters together for an unprecedented reunion with the Vietnam Conflict, as a play that is haunted by the war. Originally produced in 2004, Last of the Boys is about family, relationships and personal struggles rather than a political piece examining the war. Still, it is a good way to look at the Vietnam War through theater, as it plays like a conversation with the war’s survivors. Each character deals with keeping silent and breaking silence, with facing facts and running from reality, the past and memories.

Vietnam veteran Ben is happy to live alone in his dingy trailer in the California desert. Even with his best friend Jeeter, mum’s the word when the war, Ben’s father, or Secretary of Defense McNamara comes up. Longtime friend Jeeter, who served with Ben, walks all over that vow of silence but still runs from reality. Following the Rolling Stones all over the globe when not teaching his class entitled “The 60s,” the excitable professor is on an endless quest to relive his past. Sucked into the Rainbow Gathering, tie-dyed shirt, yoga and tofu stereotype, Jeeter uses his past like an image to impress women and for details in his recently published six-figure book.

Jeeter’s young girlfriend Salyer wants to break her family’s silence and discover everything she can about her father, killed in combat at Vietnam. Dating old veterans like Jeeter, she extracts war stories, eager to learn all she can and find her father’s ghost in the tales. For Salyer’s mother Lorraine, who wants to put an end to her daughter’s absurd relationships, the “war was one giant conspiracy to break (her) heart”. Living in resentment since the war took away her young husband, she is happy to face facts but still dreams that Salyer’s dad will come knocking one day.

After a lifetime spent blocking his past, we see Ben reliving it in flashbacks as the ghost of a Young Soldier appears in dreamscape scenes and Ben becomes Secretary McNamara himself, “the man with a plan”. By rehashing personal, painful memories, the characters erase scars left behind from old wounds. In this way, Last of the Boys invites us to dig up our own ugly truths for the sake of moving on. Whether the struggle is personal or political, by remembering our worst moments, we may hope to avoid reliving them.

Last of the Boys is a quiet play, but one that seeps in and sticks over time. If seeking out an obvious thrill-ride, it will be difficult noticing the compelling situation richly embedded below the surface in the intricately woven plot. The topic of violent war is approached with gentleness. Anyone participating—from audience to actors—must stay attentive to perceive how infectious this story can be.

A great deal is happening dramatically and is shown through stillness and delicacy, as though Ben, Jeeter, Salyer, Lorraine, and even the Young Soldier are engaged in an intervention with the Vietnam War. Last of the Boys helps current and past generations come together to better understand the Vietnam War through theater.

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