SAN DIEGO — The impact of the Vietnam war on American minds, particularly on those of the boys who fought there, is an issue that won't go away, no matter how much we would all like to forget about it.
Playwright L. Leain Thompson has struggled mightily with the ghosts of this nightmarish time in "The Willow Building," produced by the Alice Company of Las Vegas at The Theatre in Old Town, through Oct. 4. His storytelling, reportedly based on real persons who lived in the Chicago tenement of the title, may have offered a personal catharsis but theatrically he has nearly lost the battle.
The play begins with the story of Booker Tanber (played by the author), a black Vietnam veteran living in a shabby apartment that is nearly always filled with other lost remnants of humanity. Booker can't shake off the nightmares, the feeling of responsibility for the death of one of his buddies, the booze that no longer helps him drown out the memories.
His white girlfriend, Dee Easlam (Debbi Haus) offers love and comfort, which Booker rejects. The third member of his "combat family" is a guilt-ridden white man named Charles Bock (Eddie Josephs), who supplies Booker with money, constant worry, job interviews (which Booker misses), and a kind of companionship.
But Booker seems so remote from everyone that the two never really display the bond the script talks about, one built over years spent together in the midst of legalized inhumanity.
Thompson has at hand plenty of dramatic material for an affecting play about the neglected spiritual and psychological victims of war who live among us. The topic is still relevant, even though it has been probed before by better and worse writers. But "The Willow Building" quickly gets lost in an apathetic structure, wandering among characters without focus, losing any visual hold on the main character that might have kept us on the edge with him, caring about his fate and the fate of so many men like him.
This doesn't happen. Perhaps Thompson is too close to his subject, too faithful to the "real life" people who inspired his work. There is no clue to whether Booker is an autobiographical character, but with Thompson as writer, director, producer and star of his story, the lack of another pair of eyes and ears is sadly apparent.
With no one to cry halt, Thompson has gotten himself mired in subplots. Charles' bickering with his wife Ann (Kathy Myers) takes over whole scenes that might have been spent on Booker. Either of these troubled veterans could be the subject of a workable drama, but one needs to stay in the background, reinforcing the primary image.
A weakly drawn psychologist (Abigail Schreiber) is introduced with no satisfactory motivations for her concern, although a romantic attraction is hinted at in a probably unintentional insult toward the counseling profession.
The slide show that begins the play with images of the combat buddies provides the most information about Booker's history, but is nevertheless too long by half, and the images are marred by projection on a curtain seam.
Much of the acting is at a rudimentary level, although a few of the cast rise above the script's limitations, the nervous, aimless stage movements, and the general muddle of actors who seem completely uninterested in projecting their lines audibly.
Terry Jackson has some interesting moments as Booker's poker buddy, Joe. Bob Blomgren stands out as a better actor playing one of the best-developed characters, the building manager who wants to sell out more than just a piece of real estate. His subtle villainy offers Booker his first chance to be a hero since the war.
This important plot development should have come scenes before it does, with much more attention devoted to Booker's transformation. Through Booker, Thompson implies that healing is a self-motivated proposition, but then clouds his message with an insipid social worker, who does little but spout trite cliches about "post-Vietnam syndrome" and argue with her sister, Charles' wife.
Another strong performance comes from June Browne as Karen, a drunk who turns out to be the play's spiritual poet, a lost lady who lives nowhere except on the couches of friends like Booker. Her belief is that in death people go where their minds are--for Booker that means into one of the empty picture frames that decorate his apartment, meant to hold the lost photographs of his war years. His unhealed obsession with the past would trap him in an eternal astral battlefield where he could join his lost buddy Hank.
The play's end puts Karen in the role of destroyer. It is disturbing, as it was intended to be, but draws focus away, again, from the fact that the real destructive force lies within Booker, within Karen, within Charles.
Like the invisible victims it portrays, "The Willow Building" deserves its author's renewed attention.
THE WILLOW BUILDING by L. Leain Thompson. Produced and directed by Thompson. Lighting design by Terry Jackson. Sound design by Tom Sage. Set design by Thompson. With Eddie Josephs, L. Leain Thompson, Debbi Haus, Kathy Myers, Bob Blomgren, Terry Jackson, Colleen Carr, June Browne and Abigail Schreiber. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., through Oct. 5 at The Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs St. Produced by the Alice Company.