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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THEATER REVIEW The Tall Boy
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-12-07

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Playwright: Simon Bent

At: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: Stage773.com and 773-327-5252; $35-$39. Runs through: Dec. 15

The absence of familiar faces—even for a moment—is enough to trigger extreme anxiety, tears or outright terror in infants.

If left unaddressed, a child then grows to mistrust the comfort provided by empathetic relationships, lest they prove likewise temporary. Now, consider the trauma suffered by sons and daughters confronting the destruction of their homes, the murder of their families, the loss of their identity—indeed, their entire existence, rendered subject to the whims of alien wardens. These are the protagonists of a 1959 short story written by North American journalist Kay Boyle on assignment to Germany, adapted for the stage by British playwright Simon Bent.

Our locale is an abandoned country estate outside of Wurzburg in 1946, where a U.S. Army camp serves as headquarters for the United Nations Relief and Refugee Association, tasked with reuniting war orphans with their surviving relatives, or—if none can be found—arranging for their adoption. Our narrator is the camp director, charged with the implementation of these goals—duties for which she admits she is unprepared—and her tale is that of three teenage vagabonds who arrive seeking sanctuary.

Two of them, anyway—one, a 12-year-old remnant of the slaughter at Anzio, and the other, a 15-year-old lad who barely remembers his parents, executed by the Nazis before his very eyes. The third boy refuses the assistance of the would-be custodians, however, preferring to keep his origins secret as he plans his own migration, by methods legal, or not.

Despite being voiced by a single speaker, the young castaways are easily distinguishable. All of them, you see, have spent the last three years under the dubious guardianship of the liberating troops, during which they have learned to speak English in the regional accents of their G.I. buddies. Thus, the loner expresses his surly sentiments in Bowery-Boys Brooklynese, the Italian waif christened spews profanity-laced street slang in an idiom our narrator describes as "somewhere between Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Elmer Fudd" while Czech Janosch—newly self-christened "Johnny"—discourses in the gentlemanly drawl of his mentor from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Audiences inclined to giggle at the image of urchins swaggering and cursing are warned that things do not always end happily for boys too abruptly introduced to manhood. Despair born of anomie can lead to risk—stowing away on transport vehicles, for example—or suicidal contemplation when carefully nurtured hopes prove futile.

Under David Hammond's uncluttered direction, Tandy Cronyn navigates Boyle's spartan prose with deft efficiency for the performance's 70 minutes, never breaking the vocal flow between personae, while her body language invokes environments ranging from deserted forests to an office cobbled from military-issue equipment and 18th-century furnishings left by the—um, previous occupants.


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