Regional Reviews: St. Louis
A Soldier's Play
Also see Richard's review of The Women of Lockerbie
So it comes as no surprise, in the epilogue, when we learn the entire company would be wiped out by the Germans, as World War II was ending in Europe. Till then, in the action of the play, under the direction of Nada Vaughn, most of these soldiers at Fort Neal, Louisiana, are still very much the whimsical baseball players from the old "Negro leagues," who dreamt of meeting the New York Yankees in an exhibition game until tragedy derailed their final season. As entertaining as they undoubtedly were on the baseball diamond, with a few exceptions, they really are not convincing as soldiers.
Dennis Jethroe II is very good as the murder victim, seen in flashbacks, Technical Sergeant Vernon C. Waters: a man who dies of a kind of racial self-hatred. However, I missed the nuance of the character's last words which, in this case, seem purely directed at his off-stage killer. In Mr. Jethroe's consistent line readings (replaying the scene multiple times), the words "they still hate you!" now seem intended only as a clue in the whodunnit scenes of Charles Fuller's play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982. Interviewing the suspects, Jonathan Garland is almost unassailably excellent as the detective, Captain Richard Davenport, managing to be both no-nonsense and fully attentive to the dissonance of race and justice in America at the same time. Following along, Gregory Savel seems melodramatic at first, as Captain Charles Taylor, in charge of the grunts. But, by the end, you'll be impressed by the overall structure and arc of his performance.
Veteran performer Don McClendon shows his psychological acumen here as Pvt. James Wilkie, one of several key suspects. In the same vein, Jackson Britt, a recent addition to the St. Louis stage, also knows his onstage character (Lt. Byrd) is playing a scene, even as Mr. Britt plays the character himself: a white officer painted as a violent racist at the close of act one. Terrie Banks is very good as Cpl. Bernard Cobb, as is Donald Glenn Kidd III as PFC Melvin Peterson. LaVell Thompson, Jr., as Pvt. C. J. Memphis, seems doomed to deliver most of his lines upstage, but does nicely in a later jail scene. And thoughtful, seasoned performer Jaz Tucker is authentic throughout, as Pvt. Louis Henson.
In all fairness, I did see the show on the first Sunday, notoriously the worst day of a long tech/dress/opening week for any company. That may explain the lassitude and stumbles that made most scenes seem soggy and throwaway. The nuanced lighting design is by Nathan Schroeder, which adds a measure of drama and cohesion that is especially lacking among the actors playing enlisted men. But I've seen worse: the outstanding young male cast of Travels with My Aunt, in 2012, slogged like zombies through their first Sunday matinee for Act Inc. at Fontbonne University. It made my companion back then wonder why I'd dragged him along so enthusiastically, after I'd witnessed a dazzling opening night by the same performers, earlier that weekend.
A Soldier's Play runs through November 17, 2019, at the Washington University South Campus (across from the Esquire movie theater), 6501 Clayton Rd., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, visit www.placeseveryone.org.