“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
410 West 42nd Street
United Solo Festival through November 24th, 2019