By Patrick Hurley
The effects of war, not only on the returning soldiers, but on their loved ones as well as the implications that the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had on the collected psyche of our culture, are all examined in Vince Melocchi’s new drama Nice Things, playing now through November 23, at Rogue Machine.The war on terror has created not only a situation of hostility in the Middle Eastern region of the world, but also here at home. More and more playwrights, filmmakers, and novelists are exploring the vast terrain of post-war psychology, and the ramifications of such a faceless enemy. The ideas behind a good deal of these works is to highlight an injustice, whether it be to illustrate the lack of resources that our returning vets have access to, or the effects of an entire generation of men and women suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. The suicide rate of returning vets from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be proof enough that something more needs to be done.
For this play, the effects of war are seen through two very different women. Amy (Connor Kelly-Eiding), a woman whose fiancé Danny was killed in battle which then forces upon her the very human reaction of looking for someone to blame. And Staff Sergeant Bobbie Jo Gunning (Rebekah Tripp) a National Guard recruitment officer carrying the weight of not only her job of adamantly encouraging young people to seek a better life, but also her own terrifying story of war. She is also in a strained relationship with a woman named Sandy (Melanie Lyons). The burden of her past keeps interfering with her present life, making a future for these two seem impossible. Amy and Bobbie Jo’s lives intersect for the duration of this play for the simple reason that Bobbie Jo was the recruiting officer that encouraged and eventually signed up Danny.
Amy is convinced that Sergeant Gunning lied about the National Guard. She goes on about how Danny was told that he wouldn’t be going to war, he would “most likely” be staying nearby, getting an education and a job. Amy recruits a local reporter, Justin (Michael Hanson), who was also Danny’s best friend, to help expose the National Guard, and more specifically Sergeant Gunning for her great untruths. It is the question over whether or not Sergeant Gunning is lying about the National Guard to potential recruits in order to sign them up that drives the action of this play. She sells the National Guard as a place to find a better life, and to people hit hard in a bad economy, it’s a strong selling point.
This play takes place in a small town in Pennsylvania, a town where privilege is not readily found. The National Guard recruitment office, where Sergeant Gunning works is in a shopping mall where they can more easily attract young men and women. Malls have typically always been a place to find recruiting officers, and malls in low income residential areas tend to have higher recruitment numbers. This promise of a better life is something that a young man, on the cusp of adulthood like Danny was, is easily seduced by.
The setting of this play is very important to the narrative. There is a sense of isolation that these characters must feel, it’s not a trap, necessarily, at least not in the theatrical sense, but it is a sort of confinement. There is no escape from this life without actively pursuing something new. And for Amy and Sergeant Gunning, the confinement they’re facing is one that is directly caused by war, and they are both confronted with their own demons before the play ends.
Playwright Vince Melocchi really excels with the driving action of this play. The tension builds quite nicely and the revelations that come near the end of the play are gripping. There are moments where the play is simply overwritten, a bit too much exposition at times. And especially in the character of Amy, where she sometimes says more than she needs to. When she and Justin are planning to secretly record Sergeant Gunning in her recruitment spiel, in order to catch her in a lie, Amy’s arguments to convince Justin are too obvious. She repeats lines like “Danny’s dead,” as a means of persuasion, but it’s not new information, so it kind of feels melodramatic. The tenet that less is more is usually not a bad one to follow. With such a sensitive subject matter, however, the lines can get blurred, and the extreme situations these characters find themselves in could weigh down the entire play, and that doesn’t happen. It’s only certain moments where the action stops and a more didactic tone takes over. But it doesn’t hurt the overall impact of this play.
Director Elina de Santos moves the action from one scene to the next with simple sliding flats, which also serve as multimedia screens and usually project images of an atmospheric nature. The sets are minimal, and it is the projected backdrops that give the scenes a sense of place. The recruitment office, for example, has projected images of the National Guard sign on a window you’d see at a mall, only slightly too large and a little blurry. Atmospheric. The final visual image of this play, not to give it away, was beautifully done.
The quartet of actors that make up the cast successfully embody the behaviors, diction, and mannerisms of a small town. They all add something that pulls the production into a tighter focus. Melanie Lyons as Sandy, Bobbie Jo’s girlfriend, is amiable and sweet while still able to stand her ground. She, as do the rest of the cast, pulls of a Pennsylvania dialect rather well. They easily incorporate regional colloquialisms like the word “yuns,” which is Pennsylvania for “you guys,” or in something as simple as dropping the “g” off words that end in “-ing.” These seem like small things, but they are enormous when they have the ability to transport an audience to a different place.
Connor Kelly-Eiding is adept at capturing the regional qualities and attitudes of Amy. She feels at home in the setting. Amy is on the cusp of a crisis, and she’s in mourning, the combination makes for a nuanced and difficult role to pull off. She is effective, and that is saying a great deal.
As Justin, Michael Hanson gives a nicely understated performance. He is able to convey who Justin is through his interactions with Amy, and he punctuates these moments with his expressions towards her. We understand how he feels about Amy simply by the way he smiles at her, and that’s enough. It is the small moments that stand out for Mr. Hanson, perhaps proving that there is no such thing as a small moment.
Rebekah Tripp is sensational as Sergeant Bobbie Jo Gunning. From her rigid stance, which she allows to serve as a symbol of her psychological struggle, to her sharp, precise words, which she delivers with a myriad of subtext, she is so much flesh and blood that the performance transcends from profound to extraordinary. Ms. Tripp handled each moment with deft precision, and gave thought to each line of dialogue. She is simply fascinating to watch. It is a new age of drama, and it is characters like Bobbie Jo that are changing the landscape of storytelling. It is a newly explored archetype. Mr. Melocchi has written a woman who faces life returning from war. The female soldier. These are going to be such important stories to tell, and hopefully other theaters will be as encouraged as the Rogue Machine is to tell them.
Most of the elements of this play are quite successful, and it has something rather important to say. Plays with messages can feel overwrought and preachy, and this one does at times, but in the end, thanks to a very powerful lasting image, and a powerhouse performance, it leaves us with something more, something we won’t soon forget.
By Vince Melocchi
Directed by Elina de Santos
Rogue Machine (in Theatre/Theater)
5041 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, 90019
October 4-November 23