By Donna Herman
I was intrigued by the premise of Paula J. Caplan’s play “Shades” currently making its NYC debut at The Cherry Lane Studio Theater. About a family with veterans from different wars, the play asks the questions “how do people who love each other keep their differences from tearing them apart?”. And “what does it mean to be a patriot, and can you be one if you don’t agree with what your government is doing?”. The press release calls it “a cross between Eugene O’Neill meets ‘All in the Family’ – because of its combination of drama and humor”. I know, I know, it’s a press release, it’s supposed to sell me.
But Caplan is actually Dr. Caplan, a clinical and research psychologist at the Dubois Institute, Harvard University. She is well known in the field for her work in gender studies and with veterans. And she has authored 12 non-fiction books and 5 plays. For her most recent book of non-fiction, “When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home,” she interviewed returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of whom were traumatized by their experiences, and diagnosed with a mental illness.
In the book, Dr. Caplan asks why being morally and physically devastated by war is considered a mental illness and treated with drugs and psychotherapy. She asks what a mentally healthy response should be, and argues that treatment with drugs and therapy can be harmful, by implying that it is something that one can just “get over.” Dr. Caplan is also an activist and has started the “Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project”. Based on the book, it is focused on non-judgmental listening to a veteran by a non-professional, non-military person.
In “Shades” she uses theater to explore her premise further. The setting is 1997, “Springfield, USA” otherwise known as middle America. We’re at Don’s (Carson Lee) house, a recalcitrant Vietnam Vet who is a divorcee with two teenaged boys. Visiting from out of town is his recently widowed sister Val (Ashley Wren Collins), a nurse, who is making lunch in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Don waits for their widowed father, Jerry (Hal Robinson), a WWII veteran. All three of them are struggling with weighty secrets. As is June (Holly Walker), the paralyzed Vietnam Vet that Val works with several afternoons a week when she winds up staying in town. Don and Jerry are the typical shut-up-and-don’t-talk-about-emotions male soldiers, and Val is the fix-everything, guilt-ridden, nurturer. June, paralyzed from the neck down, with a husband who left her after she was injured, and a brother who looks at her and sees Vietnam, has nobody that she trusts.
I’m going to be blunt here. “Shades” is more a textbook than a play. And any comparisons to Eugene O’Neill are delusional. If Dr. Caplan truly wants to make a mark in theater, and not just use it as a tool for expounding her psychological theories, she needs to study the art as well as the science. The dialog is extremely stilted, the first act is way too long, and the attempts at comedy fall flat. The situation is set up in short order and the first act doesn’t need to be an hour and twenty minutes long. The psychotherapy process may take a lot of talk and excess verbiage, but a theater audience is not being paid to sit there.
I will say that the cast gave it a valiant effort. Especially in the second act when we finally get down to the meat of the matter and secrets are revealed. Which allows the characters to be relatable and human, not just actors saying lines that make no emotional sense. June and Val are finally relaxed and believable when June’s character is allowed to be vulnerable and Val is then able to open up in return. We finally see the nuanced and experienced actors that Collins’ and Walker’s resumes indicate they are.
Hal Robinson delivers a couple of stunning monologues as Jerry’s remembrances of the Bastogne are being recorded for a WWII retrospective. He finally lets the stories trickle out that Val has been pestering him to tell, and with them, the fears and doubts about what he saw that he never admitted to anyone.
And finally, finally, when the playwright allows the stoic and implacable Don to understand that he’s dying from the Agent Orange he dropped in Vietnam, and that his sister has been right about the VA doctors lying to him, we start to have some understanding and sympathy for his character as well. Carson Lee gets to strut his acting chops when Don has to choose whether to accept treatment or not. He wants to spare his sons the sight of him suffering, but his sister calls this suicide. Confessing the true story of her husband’s death and her feelings, she tells him his sons will feel abandoned. He faces a Sophie’s choice indeed.
I admit to being moved at the end, but it was a long row to hoe. And some of the audience were not as stalwart as I was and didn’t make past intermission. If you go, you have to commit, or else it’s not worth it.
“Shades” by Paula J. Caplan, Directed by Alex Keegan
WITH: Ashley Wren Collins (Val); Carson Lee (Don); Hal Robinson (Jerry); Holly Walker (June).
Scenic design by Becca Kleinman; costume design by Anna Blazer; lighting design by Alex DeNevers; sound design by Lawrence Schober; production stage manager, Molly Minor Eustis; casting by Stephanie Klapper; publicity and program design by Christopher Fitzer; press by Two Sheps That Pass. The Cherry Lane Studio Theater, 38 Commerce Street. Through December 17th. Tickets: www.cherrylanetheatre.org.