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Tunnel Rat
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2012-04-11

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Playwright: Neil Cole. At: Genesis Theatrical Productions at Preston Bradley Auditorium, 941 W. Lawrence Ave. Tickets:773-327-7707; www.brownpapertickets.com; $25. Runs through: April 29

We know three things at the outset of this medical-mystery yarn: 1) During the Viet Nam war, the enemy operated from an interconnected network of underground bunkers, 2) When so-called "carpet bombing" failed to eradicate these hidden fortifications—you can still see them today on guided tours in Saigon—U.S. forces sent personnel into the subterranean fortresses to hunt them down, and 3) Since the conduits were sized to accommodate soldiers of smaller stature than your average Yank, the shortest GIs were steered toward these missions.

Ronnie Giles, the hero of our play, was one of these "tunnel rats" (as they were dubbed by their peers) and, 42 years later, it's still eating at him. This is manifested in hallucinations where the ring of his cell-phone triggers memories of the doomed convoy whose driver was his own last-minute replacement, where the ghost of a female guerrilla whom he had to shoot harasses him like a pesky kid sister, and his psychologist appears to be garbed in the black "pajamas" of a Vietnamese sapper. Is Giles suffering from survivor's guilt or killer's remorse, or is he fabricating his symptoms in order to keep receiving his pension? Does he still wear his uniform (with all his medals carefully displayed) because it justifies his past actions, are his troubles actually rooted in self-consciousness over his lack of height—or does the source of his malaise matter less, in the end, than his need to accept what can't be changed and get on with his life?

Playwright Neil Cole's clinical approach to his topic is a welcome departure from the abstract emotionality too often adopted by civilian playwrights attempting vicarious replications of a singularly ill-documented war. The dramatic conceit of the aforementioned shrink and dead VC assuming the auxiliary roles in Giles' persistent recollections is kept from descending into precocity by the simplicity of Genesis Theatrical Productions' technical design and the unaffected tone imposed upon the text by Mark J. Shallow, Stefanie Johnson, and Joyce Hshieh under the direction of Brian LeTraunik. Although Andrew Dallas' score of incidental music occasionally slips into cliché—"For What It's Worth," again?—Cole's look back to traumas suffered nearly a half-century ago provides intriguing insights into what will soon almost certainly become a problem once again, in addition to serving as a sound-check on the freshly rehabbed stage in Uptown's Preston Bradley auditorium.


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