THOSE LEFT BEHIND
Remember Wolfgang Peterson's 1982 film, Das Boot, about a German U-boat crew that gets stranded on the bottom of the ocean in their sunken submarine? If so, then you'll be able to imagine the kind of claustrophobic intensity generated by Burgess Clark's new play, Purple Hearts. Inspired by actual events, this gripping World War II drama speculates on the fate of three U.S. sailors trapped in a bulkhead on the U.S.S. West Virginia, a battleship that was attacked and sunk at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Purple Hearts gets a surprising amount of mileage out of this scenario thanks to some sharp writing, and an all-around rock solid production by Invisible City Theatre Company. The three sailors in question are Whitman, the skittish senior officer; Lewis, an all-American Seabee; and the taciturn and tough-talking Spooner. Not knowing if a boiler exploded or if the ship was attacked, these three men bang on pipes, hoping to draw the attention of the divers they pray are coming to rescue them, survive on canned peaches (the only food they have), and ration their air (which means keeping tabs on how much they talk and how many cigarettes they smoke). Tensions run high between the sailors as the waiting turns from hours into days, and they begin to wonder if anybody is coming for them at all. Purple Hearts juxtaposes their struggles with those of their loved ones, who sit at home waiting for any word about the missing men. Time stands still for Lewis's no-nonsense mother, Ethel, Whitman's fragile wife, Joanne, and Spooner's sassy girlfriend, Cassie, as they ponder the fate of the sailors and grapple with how long to keep hope alive before facing the need to move on. Clark puts his trio of protagonists through their emotional paces as they each go through the five stages of grief. Their moods are not enhanced by the sheer physical discomfort of the situation: a diminishing air supply, the rapidly dropping temperature (they are underwater, after all), and the close quarters. Before long all three men have to deal with a host of unexpected challenges including heightened sexual arousal and insanity. If you're not up on your U.S. military history, the conclusion of Purple Hearts will indeed be surprising. The women get their fair share of upheaval, as well, as they deal with depression, bitterness, and new suitors looming on the horizon. Clark cuts down on the potential sensationalism of the proceedings and humanizes the whole thing by showing us how much their uncertainty costs these women. Director David L. Epstein keeps the world of the play closely confined, making not only the sailors squirm but the audience too. These guys are almost always right on top of each other, which make confrontations frequent and easy. His integration of the women, as dreamlike apparitions who appear to (and sometimes unknowingly interact with) the men is smooth and convincing. Dan Brady, Ryan Serhant, and Kevin Collins all do fine work as the sailors, exhaustively detailing both their mental and physical collapses. All are given individual moments to shine, and they each make the most of them. Cecilia Frontero, Anneka Fagundes, and Rebecca White are equally good as the women left behind. All six actors (and the production, in general) are enhanced by Joe W. Novak's moody lighting design. Purple Hearts sheds new light on one of the many forgotten chapters of World War II history. If you like your drama intense and your situations dire, this very well done production will be right up your alley.
FASCINATING CHARACTERS, OUTSTANDING CAST
"Being transported to the dismal, quiet bottom of the sea is the first thing one experiences during Invisible City Theater Company's production of Purple Hearts by Burgess Clark. With wonderful sound effects by Peter Wood that mimic the groaning of a ship to Elisha Schaefer's stark, gray set, conjuring the swimming sea life is the next step to being immersed in the aquatic. And from henceforward, one cannot help but be completely engrossed in a situation that terrifies the senses and strikes the core. Purple Hearts is a look at the three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor that sailors Spooner (Dan Patrick Brady), Lewis (Ryan Serhant) and Whitman (Kevin T. Collins) spent buried at the bottom of the sea in the battleship, the U.S.S. West Virginia. No emotions, circumstances or contemplations are spared in this production, and as a result, one is left with a realistic portrayal of hope in the face of hopelessness. Interspersed between the sailors' stories are the struggles of the women who are waiting for them to come home. They are Lewis' mother, Ethel (Cecelia Frontero), Whitman's wife, Joanne (Anneka Fagundes), and what can only be described as Spooner's love interest, Cassie (Rebecca White). At first, the presence of the three women is offputting, as they saunter on and off the same battleship space as their men. It is difficult to visualize them in a military background, rather than a domestic one. However, as the sailors begin to recall the comforts of the lives that are waiting for them above sea level, one can imagine them at least present in spirit, even though they are meant to be there both literally and figuratively. Clark creates fascinating characters that the outstanding cast, under David Epstein's strong direction, tackle with grit and aplomb. As Spooner, Dan Patrick Brady is infinitely watchable, jerking from one mannerism to the next, and heckling Lewis and Whitman for their sorrows and ideals. Chided as a pissant by Spooner, Whitman is portrayed by Kevin T. Collins as a ranking officer derailed, with a troubled spirit and the crazy eyes of Steve Buscemi. As virgin Lewis, Ryan Serhant demonstrates strength in his youth, and compassion for others in the wake of their peril. Collectively, the women “back home” all represent varying degrees of grief, denial, anger, doubt, love and acceptance with passion and commitment. The period costumes by Jennifer Raskopf take us even further into their world. A few imperfections to note are the ways in which some of their circumstances are presented visually. A mock rape scene, exciting in action, lacks the proper escalating events to lead to that point. There is smoking onstage, but the reality of their activities stops there. Although there are many peach cans, their only source of food, they are all brought into view already open without a cutting source. It is never referenced that they bathe or use the bathroom, and for a three week span, if that were not the case, there is no mention of declining hygiene. Although Purple Hearts is set in 1941, the sentiments presented here from both the military and civilian perspectives resound where the War in Iraq is concerned today. Perhaps the ability to apply those circumstances with ours is what gives this piece its extra bite. However, one can do much worse than to have this worthy, substantial play break the comfortable exterior and seep underneath the skin."
REMEMBERING THOSE LOST AT SEA
The Japanese slugged at least six torpedoes into her, maybe more, that Sunday morning, but when the USS West Virginia sank at her mooring on December 7, 1941, it was only into 40 feet of water, so the superstructure remained aloft, including the mast that would one day find itself installed as a memorial on the campus of the University of West Virginia at Morgantown. That’s what Burgess Clark, the son of a professor there, remembers from his youth. It was some years later, as a graduate student and then as an educator himself at the University of Hawaii, that Clark began thinking hard about what it must have been like for the men trapped inside the battleship beneath the water line — living on for at least three weeks until the oxygen gave out. He would put that thrust of the imagination into a play, “Purple Hearts,” which would wend its way for 20 years from the Kumu Kahua (“New Works”) Theater in Honolulu to well-received productions in Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Edinburgh to — now, at last — an opening September 8 (previews start September 5) at Off-Broadway’s Gene Frankel Theater in this city. “Yes, absolutely, it certainly does [have parallels],” Clark said late last week of the overtones between the entrapment of the three doomed men in his play and the Utah coal-mine tragedy that was getting worse even as we talked. A further reverberation: even more grievously lost at Pearl Harbor was, of course, the USS Utah. The three able-bodied seamen of “Purple Hearts” — caught by chance in one compartment — are Whitman (tense, self-involved, religious), Lewis (young, optimistic, innocent), and Spooner (older, burnt out, cynical). “It’s a dramatic representation,” said Clark — not the real thing, because nobody knows the real thing, nor even the real names of these and however many others perished in similar slow-death circumstances at Pearl Harbor. Well, the U.S. Navy presumably knows, but the U.S. Navy has locked the real names up for 100 years, until 2041, on the grounds of public and private morale, or whatever. Burgess Clark — born June 1, 1961, in Morgantown — is today the director of education of the North Shore Music Festival in Beverly, Massachusetts. It was from there that he also last week said: “All three of those men represent, to me, how I’d face that situation. One is how I’d like to face it: that’s Spooner, the cynic. And one is what I fear I’d be like: Whitman, who goes crazy.” Lewis, the young innocent, apparently doesn’t count, but it was in fact an actor named Ryan Serhant, playing Lewis in a workshop reading of “Purple Hearts” at the New Noises Festival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, who then brought the play to the attention of David Epstein, artistic director of the Invisible City Theater Company and, now, director of this New York production. Ryan Serhant still plays Lewis. Kevin T. Collins is Whitman. Dan Patrick Brady is Spooner. The three women in their lives are played by Anneka Fagundes, Rebecca White, and Cecilla Frontero. It was while Burgess Clark was in Hawaii in the 1980s that he got involved with the Pearl Harbor Historical Society, and met and interviewed some of the WW II veterans who had been on the scene at Pearl Harbor. This led to his writing a first draft of “Purple Hearts” in 1984, as an exercise, while still a graduate student. “Actually, one gentleman I talked with had been on the West Virginia and had known three men who were trapped like this.” Clark also interviewed a number of Pearl Harbor survivors who had been on salvage operations and could hear tappings and bangings, another coalmine parallel — “We’re alive! Save us!” — coming from within the sunken ships. “The salvage guys told their commanding officers, who said: ‘Go where you can’t hear it.’ The cause was deemed hopeless. And where a few of the rescuers did get through, cut through the hulls with blow torches, they found the men inside all dead, asphyxiated by the blow-torch fumes.” The greatest praise Clark has had is from people who tell him: “You’ve put a human face on a historic event.” He was living here during another visceral event – September 11, six years ago. Forty feet underwater or 1,300 feet into the sky — trapped is trapped.