"In my dream, nobody dies."
--A soldier in "Tracers"
Of all the wars in American history, the war in Vietnam has to be the most difficult for historians to judge. One thing is certain: A generation of young Americans went off to fight in a battlefield of apocalyptic limbo and then came home to find themselves, for a time, the personification of disgrace.
For them, Vietnam was modern America's frontier outpost, jazzed with hideous, exuberant technology, rock 'n' roll, drugs and the ferocious energies of American political and moral enterprise turned loose like a flamethrower on a treacherous and indefatigably stubborn territory. In Vietnam, the evils of the modern world ceased to be abstract. You fought not only for your country and your life; you fought for your sanity.
Nobody is more incensed by depictions of men in war, or by the overtheatricalization of their experience, than the people who were there. But the makers and performers of "Tracers," which has just returned to Los Angeles at the Coronet Theatre, are all Vietnam veterans. And they've seen to it, as much as they can, that we get a very good idea of what they went through.
"Tracers," you may recall, was first conceived by director John DiFusco out of a series of veterans' rap sessions and psychodrama workshops, eventually finding its way to the Odyssey stage in 1980. It has since gone on to New York and London, has had some revision and now returns with more maturity and style, like a seasoned traveler who's come home with an aura of self-assurance.
Some of that strikes this observer as a touch self-satisfied, or at least slick. The ensemble dance sequences in the beginning could easily find their way onto the stage of a Vegas lounge act, there's an over-reliance on dry ice for effects, and Act II gives confusing signals about where it's going to end.
On balance, these are trivial distractions. "Tracers" not only reports to us what it was like, but it lets us feel what it was like. It brings us into the field and the squad bay, into the humor and the prized eccentricities of the men who were hardly more than boys, into the incredulity and the mounting paranoia.
Vaughn Armstrong's Sgt. Williams is the crusty, cutting prototype for every drill instructor who ever pushed a platoon to combat readiness--he knows better than his "maggots" what fate awaits them. You don't have to ask Harry Stephens' "Professor" why he isn't tight with anybody in the unit--why get close to somebody when chances are he'll be killed? Professor does become friends with Doc, an amiable, laid-back, half-loaded medic, over their mutual love of Pirandello (who would have made an ideal Vietnam reporter). One day Doc blows his brains out. The war has really come home.
"Tracers" captures the zizzy, jagged, surreal pace of a soldier's day, and his sense of irony--so pervasive that it's become unconscious. One soldier comes in from a firefight, where he knows he's killed somebody, to read a letter from his girlfriend and look aghast at her dilemma over which major to choose in school. (Later, she writes that she's dating someone else, but hopes they can always be friends. Great.) Toward the end, they begin referring to home as "the world," as though their reality, so much keener and deadlier, has no relationship to anything else.
What's miraculous about "Tracers," aside from the rare depiction of the robust and powerful energies of young men at the height of their strength, is in what it brings out of the Vietnam experience. Of all we hear of suffering, Agent Orange, stress, these men have found in their pain a corner of joy.
We can't get Vietnam out of our minds because we've never been able to find a way to come to grips with all the contradictions and miseries it engendered. You can't go through the ritual of forgiveness and mercy for something that hasn't been clearly judged. Vietnam is unfinished business, and "Tracers" is the closest thing we have to an exorcism of it. Performances Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 7 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m., at 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., (213) 659-6415. Runs indefinitely.
'TRACERS' A play conceived and directed by John DiFusco. With Vaughn Armstrong, R. J. Bonds, Richard Chaves, Anthony Chisholm, Josh Cruze, Merlin Marston, Howard Mungo, Harry Stephens. Written by the original cast: Vincent Caristi, Chaves, DiFusco, Eric E. Emerson, Rick Gallavan, Marston, Stephens, Sheldon Lettich. Set John Falabella. Costumes David Navarro Velasquez. Lighting Terry Wuthrich. Sound DiFusco. Presented by L.A. Public Theatre, L.A. Stage Co., L.A. Theatre Works, Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theatre Co., New York Shakespeare Festival at the Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., (213) 659-6415. Prices $16-$20.