When War Runs In the Family
By Peter Marks
A family goes to war: from left, Norman Aronovic as Grandpop, Andres Talero as Elliot, Laura Giannarelli as Ginny and Manolo Santalla as Pop.
In the warmly textured "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue," playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes is doing her part for the troops. Which is not to say that her new play, in its regional premiere at GALA Hispanic Theatre, pays them the lip service that passes these days for public support for men and women in uniform.
It's an attempt, rather, to portray the sacrifices and consolations of military service from the perspective of a single American family, in this case a Puerto Rican family from Philadelphia that has sent a member of each generation to war since Korea in the 1950s.
Hudes relates the characters' diverse wartime experiences in such a way as to make of "Elliot" one story with many facets. The actors playing the four family members frequently speak to us directly, describing their own histories in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, or providing bits of poetic embroidery for the stories of the others. The "fugue" of the title has to do with this interwoven, presentational style of narration, and the effect is to make the play a platform both for the particularly strong bonds within the family and for the aspects of service they describe that can apply to veterans of all wars.
"Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue" was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, which was awarded yesterday to David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole." Hudes's play is a slighter creation, more atmospheric than intensely dramatic. One of the less than satisfying aspects of Hudes's format is that it doesn't sustain much in the way of urgency. Still, the playwright does bring the family evocatively into focus, and she also reveals something of a tender nature about how service to the country helps to root a clan to the American mainstream.
The drama's chief asset is its portrait of the youngest family member, Elliot himself, a Marine shipped off to the Middle East at the outset of the war in Iraq. He is played with abundant spirit by Andres Talero, a young actor who, according to the program, served a year in Kuwait and Iraq and remains a member of the Army Reserve.
Talero's performance is so fresh and devoid of artificiality that an audience happily takes him for whom he's meant to be. In several vignettes, Ellioton medical leave after a leg injuryis interviewed on local and national news, and Talero applies to these scenes the kind of plain-spoken decency you'd expect of a good-natured kid who's getting a lot of unexpected attention.
Elliot's enlistment, it seems, is a way for him to forge a more compelling connection with his father (Manolo Santalla), an Army vet who met Elliot's mother (Laura Giannarelli) in a hospital in Vietnam, where she was a nurse and he was recovering from a leg wound of his own. But the play, fortunately, makes these potentially melodramatic parallels little more than narrative footnotes. More central to the piece is the effort to create a tapestry of sensation, feelings both common and special to the American foot soldier.
The production, performed in English with Spanish surtitles, is staged fluidly by director Abel Lopez on set designer Milagros Ponce de Leon's interlocking ramps. Every now and then the proceedings grow a bit sluggish with the choppy sound cues and constant moving of props. Yet the actors make Hudes's poetry their own, especially Giannarelli, who lends the play a palpable earthiness.
The anchor here, however, is Talero. He firmly establishes "semper fi" as key words in his lexicon.