That '70s Show

I'm telling you, John Kerry hurt himself playing shuffleboard on that swift boat
Bain Boehlke

Steven Dietz's Last of the Boys takes place as the 20th century groans to a close, but its heart is stuck in the mid-'70s. Vietnam had come to its strange and anticlimactic finish, and a sense had taken hold that our leaders were not merely corrupt, or incompetent (that's true in any country, at most any time), but that their folly had reduced our national discourse to incoherence. The war simply didn't make sense, and once it was over few could face the notion that all of the anguish and sacrifice had unfolded without an enduring meaning.

Tell it to Ben (Stephen D'Ambrose), a vet living alone in an abandoned trailer park, his solitude broken only by annual visits from college professor and army buddy Jeeter (Terry Hempleman). When the action opens, Jeeter arrives bearing artifacts from Ben's father's funeral, which Ben opted not to attend because of old disagreements over the war. Jeeter totes along Ben's dad's flag from his military funeral, along with a photo of pops with Vietnam-era defense secretary Robert McNamara, whose late-life repudiation of his own decisions may have opened more wounds than it healed.

Soon we meet Jeeter's new, younger girlfriend Salyer (Heide Bakke), followed close behind by her crowbar-wielding mother Lorraine (Camille D'Ambrose). Salyer covers up every inch of her body except her face, for reasons that eventually tie into the death of her own father in Vietnam when she was in utero. (As the crowbar would seem to suggest, Mom hasn't dealt with the loss any better; in fact, she's gone around the bend.) With so much death in the air, it seems appropriate when a literal ghost arrives (Nate Fleming), though it's seen only by Ben and Salyer—and, fleetingly, teasingly, by Lorraine.

Barry Browning's lighting design depicts this limbo with muted twilight and the grainy cast of foggy mornings. Piercing through this haze is D'Ambrose's Ben: He's acerbic and shut down, the straight guy to Hempleman's wow-man spiritual seeker. In a show with such accomplished actors and meaty roles, Bakke faces tough terrain playing a character a generation younger than the others. And at first her performance seems jarringly mannered, all breathy insinuation and a somehow off-putting sensuality. As the play progresses, though, in earthy, dense dialogue, her performance begins to make sense. Salyer is the linchpin of the work, the child of the arbitrary craziness that came before, and the bearer of its scars. She is an almost-eager sufferer for the sins of her forebears, and Bakke shows her drifting into the ether in order to survive.

The action moves to a charged semi-confrontation around a campfire (Ben's the kind of guy who keeps both his refrigerator and his ironing board out of doors), and a late-night episode in which Ben is somehow inhabited by McNamara's spirit. (Here, D'Ambrose is absolutely chilling.) The conclusion is necessarily ambiguous, and one is left apprehending that this work depicts nothing less than the fallout from a societal infection, the long morning after a descent into meaningless violence and soul-destroying bad faith. The feeling, these days, is familiar.

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