A strong ensemble abets this witty but quiet play about three old French soldiers
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., March 13, 2009
Larry L. King Theatre at Austin Playhouse, through March 15
Running time: 1 hr, 30 min
Heroes is a play about three men in the twilight of their years, living out their final days on the terrace of a home for old soldiers. Every day they sit together, bickering and debating their limited futures in the company of a stone statue of a dog.
The setup seems ripe for cliché, for mockery of the elderly, and for lame jokes at the expense of old men's quiet lives. Yet the script by Gérald Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard, does not fall into those traps. The play is called Heroes because these men have proven themselves to be exactly that. The play takes place in 1959 in the French countryside, and these three characters first fought in the brutal trenches of World War I and then lived through the occupation of World War II. One of them, Phillipe, carries shrapnel in his head to this day, and another, Henri, has a lame leg.
They talk about things other than war, though. Why talk about war when it's understood that all of them have seen it? Instead, they decide it's time to plot a new conquest, one that will take them on foot beyond the cemetery at the gates of the old soldiers home, all the way to the line of poplar trees at the horizon. Clearly it's an impossibility, but each of them discovers a new motivation for moving from day to day as they plan for their ridiculous journey.
Heroes is a witty but quiet play. Its appeal lies in the way it portrays the secluded life. From where these men sit, we can see how the outside world takes on a special quality when there is no longer any commerce between the cloister and what lies beyond its walls. Fantasies grow unfettered as old men debate strategies for seducing beautiful young women, and one of them, Gustave, decides that he will carry the 200-pound dog with them on their journey to the poplar trees.
Director Lara Toner takes the cast through the play gracefully. As Phillipe, David Stahl is especially endearing. Stahl knows how to balance his character against the other two, carrying small thoughts through moments of silence and using stillness to his advantage. As Gustave, Austin Playhouse Artistic Director Don Toner seems to resist his character, retaining a shade too much of his own spryness, and Michael Stuart's prop cane is not always his friend. Together, however, the three actors build a strong ensemble.
With a 90-minute play about the adventures of three old men in failing health, the ending might be obvious. Sibleyras knows that we know what will happen to them, however, and Heroes takes us to a slightly different place. It's an easy and perhaps forced tableau, but it serves as a gentle waiting place for that stretch of time before the inevitable comes to pass.