Review - Silent Heroes: And Then There Wasn't One

For the past few weeks I've been enjoying Gotham's slight theatrical lull that began just before Christmas and seems to have ended with the inauguration. Oh, it's not that nothing has been opening, but the relative scarcity of new Broadway shows and high-profile Off-Broadway productions has given me more time than usual to check out the goings-on Off-Off Broadway. While figuring out what could fit into my schedule, a recent column by my friend and esteemed colleague Peter Filichia, singing enthusiastic praise for The Roundtable Ensemble's Equity showcase of Linda Escalera Baggs' tense and heart-ripping drama, Silent Heroes, sent me scrambling through old emails to see who to contact for press tickets. Alas, as I'm writing these words there are only three performances remaining for this excellent production (Friday at 8, Saturday at 3 and 8), but at the recession-friendly price of only $18, this very well acted and conversation-stimulating 90 minutes is well worth squeezing into your weekend.

The audience faces three sides of the tiny playing space at Shelter Studios' Theatre 54. (Long-legged playgoers in the first row can provide an obstacle for the actors.) Nick Francone's unit set has the sterile non-personality of a government waiting room, save for nearly three decades worth of "Pilot of the Year" photos mounted on the wall. It's 1975 and we're at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, SC. The wives of six flyers who have teamed up on a mission have gathered, informed that one of their husbands has crashed into a ball of inescapable fire. Nobody will know who has died until the planes of the five survivors have landed. And while the network of military wives provides friendship and comfort in such cases, each woman is aware that she cannot hope for her man to be safe without hoping someone else's is dead.

While the women pass the time in conversation, waiting for the sounds of planes landing just outside, the civilian hierarchy becomes clear. While not in the military themselves, being married to a member of the corps demands conformity to certain codes and standards. As the wife of a commanding officer, June (Kelly Ann Moore) is the group's leader. Having lost a previous husband to the war, she tries to be a compassionate role model, caring more for comforting others than dealing with her own fears. Also a veteran of nights like these, Eleanor (Rosalie Tenseth) has acquired a protective shield of fatalistic humor, hiding personal wounds still stinging from her husband's days in Vietnam.

The youngest of the group, Miranda (Sarah Saunders), is a former war protestor who witnessed the shooting at Kent State. Her hippie clothes and praise for the Women's Liberation Movement are scorned by the others, who question her patriotism. It's Miranda's insistence on speaking her mind that fuels the play's assortment of conflicts. Kitty (Lisa Velton Smith), the somewhat nasty trophy wife with long auburn hair styled a bit like Suzanne Somers in her Three's Company days, laughs off her arguments, but Miranda's openness has a great impact on the pregnant Patsy (Julie Jesneck), who feels it's her patriotic duty to put up with her husband's abuse, and Felicia (Dionne Audain), who, as the only black member of the group, has experienced more (but not total) racial equality through the military than she ever would in civilian life.

If Baggs' dialogue seems didactic at times it soon becomes clear that it's the characters themselves who communicate with a kind of rehearsed rhetoric, whether acquired from Uncle Sam or from Gloria Steinem. And that makes them all the more realistic. Director Rosemary Andress does an admirable job of making the staging seem natural on such a small space. The evening is well paced and suspenseful like Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians as the audience gets emotionally involved with each discovery of a surviving pilot. (There are working clocks on stage and I didn't notice how much time had gone by until the play was nearly done.) The fine work from the terrific ensemble has you admiring each character's ability to cope with an impossible situation. Though you may walk into Silent Heroes with certain feelings about patriotism, the military, gender roles and an assortment of other issues, be prepared for convincing, passionate arguments from the other side. And while you're at it, be prepared with tissues, too.

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