Playwright: Irwin Shaw. At: Promethean Theatre Ensemble
at the Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark. Phone: 1-800-838-3006; $20. Runs through: May 21
How's this for a premise? Six deceased GIs rise up in their freshly-dug graves and refuse to be buried. Their superior officers order them to lie down like the lifeless refuse that the doctor's official statement affirms they are. The chaplains accuse them of blasphemy ("Who do they think they areJesus Christ?") and initiate exorcisms. The pentagon tries to suppress reports of this unpatriotic behavior ("We can only keep fighting when the dead are buried and forgotten," huffs one general) as the media attempts to spin it into a feel-good morale-booster. Wives, sisters, mothers and girlfriends are distraughteven angryat the return of their loved ones. Gradually, however, word of this posthumous mutiny spreads, gathering popular support.
Nowadays, with vampires and zombies very much in vogue, reanimated corpses are less shocking than in 1936, when Irwin Shaw wrote his scathing indictment of war's destructionso scathing, in fact, that theaters were prohibited from performing it in the late 1960s, when anti-Vietnam war sentiment was at its peak. Shaw may have been talking about World War Ihis infantrymen speak of "front lines," trench fever and "being caught on the wire"but the Promethean Theatre Ensemble doesn't comfort us with historical distance. Its production presents us with deliberately eclectic period details to create a panorama of images drawn from the many calls to arms following the one purported To End Them All: field uniforms blend jungle and desert camouflage, body armor appears side-by-side with booniehats. Civilians wear classic fashions dating from anytime between 1960 and 2010. Slang, pop references and economic indicators (a mechanic's wages, for example) are, likewise, updated.
Director Beth Wolf wisely keeps the action scaled to the intimate dimensions of the Artistic Home's storefront auditorium, making for a spartan stage picture as her mostly young actors deliver emotionally intense performances transcending the propagandist archetypes they portray. Audience members whose exposure to international conflict is limited to safely-sanitized summaries, conveniently submitted well after the fact, may argue that the atrocities of 1918 are no longer relevant in an age of Smart Bombs and Kevlar jackets, but until somebody invents a war where nobody dies, the untimely slaughter of our country's youth will continue to invoke sorrow and outrage.