No matter how critical one feels towards war, it is virtually impossible to fault the journeymen soldiers who have to carry out that task. They are generally good kids, enlisting at a young age to protect, defend, and yes, ultimately kill for country. It turns out that the military machine is very good at taking them at a young age and teaching them to kill. But it is much less good at helping them return home to normalcy after the killing is done.
The above could be said of any soldier, but the soldier in study here is the American soldier, serving both as title and subject of Douglas Taurel’s compact, but questioning, solo play about war and its affect on the everyday soldier.
Over the course of an hour we meet eight soldiers, two fathers of fallen soldiers, and one wife and son of a soldier who has just deployed. We also glimpse most of the major wars America has fought since the Revolutionary War. (Ironically, the one major war that is missing from this panoply is the Korean War, generally dubbed “The Forgotten War.”) Taurel is both writer and actor and it is clear he identifies deeply with his subject matter—not as a soldier himself (he admits he has never served)—but as a compassionate and very concerned observer.
Taurel isn’t covering any new ground. There have been countless books, plays, movies, songs, and even poems written about the soldier returning home, severely traumatized and unable to figure out how to live a non-killing, non-military life. Just to name a few: StoryCorps’s “Military Voices Initiative;” The Matterhorn, a novel by Karl Marlentes; Basetrack Live, a documentary theater production by En Garde Arts; Clint Eastwood’s film American Sniper.
But the fact that these and many many other accounts exist doesn’t make Taurel’s play any less meaningful. Even now, without conscription, we have over 1.3 million people on active duty and still, we don’t have an adequate method of returning our soldiers to civilian life. We are getting better at it, but the more reminders we have, the easier it will be to make the case for help. And for change.
As a solo show, Taurel inhabited every character and some he inhabited better than others. He was especially good when inhabiting soldiers in the field, whether freezing in Valley Forge, smoking a joint in Vietnam, or killing the enemy at Iwo Jima. Two of the most poignant episodes were of fathers talking about their deceased sons. The play showcased only one woman—the wife of a soldier who had just re-deployed. Not only did that portrayal feel less convincing, but it also highlighted the absence of the woman’s perspective, whether of the wives or the mothers. Sometimes the accents felt a little forced, as if he was trying to differentiate character by physical voice, and occasionally the costume changes felt as though they might have been more effective if done offstage. But overall, the weaknesses, while sometime distracting, shouldn’t spoil the overall effect. The American Soldier is tightly crafted and effective.
Part of the effectiveness comes from the first soldier we meet. He is the only one who reprises his role throughout the play. In military dress, he marches out on stage, turns and faces the audience, and announces that he learned three things in the army. Over the course of the play, we learn what those three lessons are, and they all involve decent, good, and human qualities.
Whether those are the three universal lessons that soldiers retain coming back from active duty is debatable. But give credit to Taurel in finding positive qualities to leave us with. He wrote this play based on letters from American soldiers all the way back from the Revolutionary War, so there must be some kernel of truth in the three lessons. Yes, they may be illusory, or just for show. Even so. If those qualities can serve as pillars of strength for the returning soldiers who have risked their lives and killed for our country…well then, ultimately that can’t be such a bad thing.
The American Soldier, written and acted by Douglas Taurel and directed by Padraic Lillis played at 59E59th Street Theaters on July 8 and 9 as part of its East to Edinburgh Festival. The play will also take place at the Zoo South Side Theater from August 7-22 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.