The Things They Carried– A Tour de Force

“Fifty years later and I still haven’t finished working it out…every now and then I’m reading a book or…and I see the man I killed…they’re all dead…except in a story…” (from Jim Stowell’s adaption)

In 1990, The New York Times called Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried “essential fiction about Vietnam (Based on the author’s own experience)…moving beyond the horror to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear…”  I haven’t read the book. Jim Stowell’s adaptation, however, accomplishes this and considerably more. His stunning performance in tandem with incisive writing brings O’Brien’s story to explicit, harrowing life.

The protagonist is something of a golden boy, Phi Beta Kappa with a waiting scholarship. A draft notice is naively the last thing on his mind. What might be called the prologue emerges as a chapter about almost fleeing to Canada. He’s literally yards away when the wrenching decision is made. Instead O’Brien travels “from pine trees to the prairie (his Midwest home) to Vietnam.”

“I went to war and saw my first dead body February 1969…I felt sick to my stomach. A veteran stepped beside me. I’m ‘onna tell you how to deal with these things. (accent is gruff southern) Look and say, There it is…I mean be cool, baby. You cannot change what cannot be changed.” The helpful mantra becomes a hypnotic chant, an  anthem.

The Things They Carried includes jungle boots, salt tablets, wristwatches, sewing kits, 2 or 3 extra canteens of water, cigarettes, pocketknives, M-29 grenade launchers, a 2 ½ pound lined, plastic poncho, an 8 ½ pound assault rifle with 12-20 magazines (the weight of everything army issued is noted)…as well as grief, terror, love, yearning, memories, cowardice. Who can calculate the weight of intangibles? One man carries a plastic bag of letters from a girl he wants to be his sweetheart wondering whether she’s a virgin; another, 7-8 ounces of premium dope.

The soldier who serendipitously becomes O’Brien’s best buddy tells him, “The war is an exercise in democracy. Where else would we be friends?” (Accent, speech pattern, and a talisman indicate he might be an American Indian.) O’Brien eventually loses the man in helpless, horrifying circumstances provoked by two incredibly stupid decisions, one O’Brien’s, one that of a senior officer. Even smell is transmitted.

We hear about the young man O’Brien kills, emotional consequences, and rough peer advice. He’s told he had no choice. “You gotta stop living in that world (your old life) and start livin’ in this world or you’re gonna go home in a box.” Description of weather, terrain, and bonding are vivid. Stowell’s intensity is so focused, he makes us see what the character sees; his gut reaction so well timed, we witness the evolution of survival tactics and devastation that ignores them. 

Twenty years later, O’Brien goes back to a pivotal field, his 9 year-old daughter in tow. This might be an epilogue. She seems to be there. Every move appears to be taking place in real time. The actor inhabits O’Brien so thoroughly his breathing changes; there are tears in his eyes. Exorcism for O’Brien is only partial, however. Who can know what these men endured and what they carry the rest of their lives?!

Photos Courtesy of United Solo

United Solo presents
The Things They Carried 
Written by Tim O’Brien                                                                               
Adapted and Performed by Jim Stowell
Directed by Jessica Zuehlke
Theatre Row 
410 West 42nd Street
United Solo Festival through November 24th, 2019

About Alix Cohen (688 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.