Vietnam vet and ‘Parade’ editor Walter Anderson recreates the struggles of a soldier’s return.
It's 1965 in a tenement apartment in the Bronx, near White Plains Road and 241st Street, and Harry and Grace Barnett are eagerly awaiting the return of their son Johnny from Vietnam. Their joyful reunion quickly deteriorates, however, in the face of Harry's drinking and gambling debts, Johnny's guilt over his best friend's death in the war and the ulterior motives of family "friend" Detective Pappas. In this premiere play by Vietnam veteran and former Parade editor-in-chief Walter Anderson, one young man's decision of what to do after the war becomes far more than it seems.
New Play in a Classic Style
In theater speak, we would call this play a "kitchen sink drama," a family-focused play taking place largely in the kitchen of their home, featuring the struggles of the urban working class in the '50s and '60s. Think Death of a Salesman, Look Back in Anger--in short, a classic style of play, and stylistically, Almost Home does not break from the mold at all. What makes this play unique, then, is how it brings the atrocities of World War II and Vietnam into an everyday Bronx apartment, demonstrating how such horrors can permeate any future facet of life.
When Johnny comes home for Christmas, he informs his parents of the decision he has to make, between either becoming a Drill Instructor and training future soldiers or going to college. As Johnny learns of his father's debts and Pappas's desire to make him a police officer, however, things become much more complicated, and in the subtlest, most seamless of fashions, the Barnett family's facade breaks down. One moment, their phone can only receive incoming calls because "it's not working," and the next there is three thousand dollars of illegally acquired money sitting on the kitchen table.
This is a time before Law & Order, before what "Internal Affairs" is becomes common knowledge, and it's a time when race relations are complicated by issues of class and education level. And while Harry's eight-grade education and the beautifully realistic set that refers back to the 1960s with every box of sugar and subway growl firmly roots the play in an era, Johnny's struggle is one that is still very applicable today--coming to a clear turning point in one's life and having no idea which option to choose.
The five person cast does a phenomenal job bringing the historical Bronx to life in a realistic and gripping way. James McCaffrey as Detective Pappas is the epitome of a dirty cop without becoming a caricature, while Joe Lisi as Harry is the stalwart man of the house unable to admit that anything he does is wrong, from his drinking to his debts. I particularly appreciated the slow reveal of all of the ties that bind Harry and Pappas together, so that only by the end can we truly understand the reasons behind his actions.
Brenda Pressley's Luisa is the most exciting, innovative character in the play, a black schoolteacher and lifelong friend of the Barnetts, whose presence constantly challenges ideas of who our role models are and what their limitations are as well. Karen Ziemba as Grace Barnett performs a woman unable to admit that her life might improve without her husband with nuance and grace, while Jonny Orsini's Johnny is the essence of youth and hope, belonging to a different time than the older adults in the play.
The most gripping moments in the play are Johnny and Harry's war stories, a Vietnam battlefield and German prisoner of war camp come to life in a New York kitchen, with Harry and Pappas's showdown at the precinct at the end a close second. For a play where tensions are riding so high, the ending of the piece feels somewhat anticlimactic--is the big boss going down or not? Still, while not the most original of stories, Almost Home is an engaging and expertly performed play, a tale about how occasionally after war, things can actually go right.
Almost Home plays at the Acorn Theatre in Theatre Row through October 12. For more information, check out their website.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.