Chicago Theatre Review
Theirs But to Do and Die
Down Range – Genesis / National Pastime
The real sacrifices made by men and women in the military, and particularly those involving loved ones, is virtually unknown to most private citizens. Career soldiers seem to be their own breed of animal, belonging at once to their close-knit military band of brothers, but also part of their own civilian families waiting back home. The quandary and personal struggle over which family should dominate a soldier’s life is told in a series of scenes and monologues that add up to a powerful look at one of society’s unknown elements.
Playwright, poet and essayist Jeffrey Skinner paints a portrait of Frank Rispotl, an army man helplessly addicted to his vocation while trying to maintain his relationship with his loving civilian wife, Beth. Skinner’s play jumps around chronologically and geographically, and throughout this patchwork plot the audience forms an impression of Frank and Beth’s courtship, their friendship with another military family and the trials, tribulations and heartbreak that are a part of military life. Frank’s continual choice for redeployment and his family’s resulting nomadic lifestyle, relocating to a new home every few months, takes its toll on Beth. Lonely, frustrated, but always supportive, Beth tries desperately to find happiness in a life full of uncertainty and a constant state of flux. Frank’s devotion to his missions and his men, particularly to his best friend Curtis “Doc” Pettibone, provide the conflict that charges all the way through to the play’s surprising conclusion.
Director Kay Martinovich faced a daunting challenge. In order to take this play from page to stage with a sense of reality, she provided vast amounts of research for both her cast and artistic team. Then Ms. Martinovich was challenged with taking this intimate, dramatic work and staging it in a sprawling, gymnasium-sized performance space. The result is that the production loses a great deal of its power and intimacy. The many scene changes would flow smoother and swifter in a smaller venue, perhaps employing simple shifts in lighting to indicate the passage of time and place. The five-member cast wouldn’t have to play so broadly within a more modest setting, and that would provide an added advantage. But, given what Ms. Martinovich had to work with, this production is still riveting and memorable.
Carl Herzog gives another strong performance as Frank (equally powerful Stanley in Jedlicka’s “Streetcar Named Desire”). Torn apart by his fierce dedication to the military and his loving devotion to Beth, Frank’s allegiances are continually being put to the test. Mr. Herzog shows a wide range of emotion, often turning on a dime, but it’s in his quieter, more private moments that the audience is invited in for a closer look at this tormented man. Carey Lee Burton plays Beth with spunk and honesty. The actress journeys seamlessly from young, flirtatious teenager to a woman who has tried, in spite of constant challenges, to make her marriage work. Ms. Burton’s frustration with not being allowed to establish permanent roots, not being fulfilled creatively and feeling lonely within a life of uncertainty is played by this actress with such truth that the play, in the final analysis, becomes Beth’s story.
Whitney Morse, another area actress who has impressed in past productions (from Jedlicka’s “Accomplice” to Pride Films and Plays‘ “The Children’s Hour”) adds the role of German-born Eva to her varied resume. Without making Eva a caricature, Ms. Morse offers just enough hint of dialect to make her character convincing. She easily conveys everything this role demands, from supportive friend to smoldering sexpot. Once again Whitney Morse demonstrates what a surprising and versatile young actress she’s become in a short time. In my book, she is an artist to watch. David Lawrence Hamilton is adequate but less impressive as Frank’s military best buddy, Doc. Undeniably affable, Mr. Hamilton remains a one-note character throughout the play. The actor finally rises to the occasion near the play’s surprising conclusion, but his performance is less spectacular than his cast mates. Lucas Thatcher is competent as the Casualty Assistance Officer, playing the role as a talking head, imparting information about military funerals with an almost automaton delivery, devoid of all emotion except when interrupted.
Award-winning poet and playwright Jeffrey Skinner has written a moving and powerful drama about the men who devote their career and their lives to the military. He exposes the addictive nature that the army’s family holds over these individuals and illustrates how war is wagered, not only in foreign lands but in the men’s personal lives, as well. Kay Martinovich’s production presents all the right elements but the play’s intimacy is, unfortunately, diminished by the enormity of the venue in which it’s staged.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 7-31 by Genesis Theatrical Productions in conjunction with National Pastime Theater at their space, 941 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by 773-724-1554 or by going to www.brownpapertickets.com/event.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.