Compact 'Heroes' Packs Quite a Dramatic Punch
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 1, 2009
Three old geezers frittering away the hours in a retirement facility. That might not sound like a gripping dramatic scenario, but it's hard to tear yourself away from the MetroStage production of "Heroes," French dramatist Grald Sibleyras's bittersweet portrait of querulous, loafing World War I veterans.
Displaying spot-on timing, three expert actors mine the humor, tension and wistful profundity in this 80-minute piece, which has been translated into pellucid English by no less a luminary than Tom Stoppard. The narrative may begin and end in rambling talk, and the comedy often cedes to bare-ruined-choirs pensiveness, but "Heroes" -- confidently directed by John Vreeke -- hooks you more surely than many a play that has a taut, flashy story line.
First presented in Paris in 2003 -- and, in Stoppard's version, subsequently mounted in London (where it nabbed the 2006 Laurence Olivier Award for best new comedy) -- Sibleyras's play takes place on the terrace of an old soldiers' home. MetroStage set designer Colin K. Bills renders a poetic configuration of bench, flagstones and green-gray wall, guarded by a statue of a wolfhound.
Here Gustave, Philippe and Henri (Ralph Cosham, John Dow and Michael Tolaydo) while away their days gossiping, reminiscing, exasperating one another and hatching harebrained schemes. Particularly occupying their minds, in this late summer of 1959, are the doings of the retirement home's administrator -- a nun of potentially Machiavellian cunning -- and a planned hike to a distant grove of poplars. (The play's French title is "Le Vent des Peupliers": "The Wind in the Poplars.")
In a smart touch, costumier Ivania Stack outfits the elderly warriors in autumn-brown suits, vests and shoes that are almost, but not quite, identical. The sartorial similarity accentuates the contrasts among the soldiers' personalities -- distinctions that the actors tease out deftly. With a withering speaking tone and world-weary manner, Cosham is riveting as the dyspeptic Gustave ("Nothing revolts me more than a picnic!"), whose know-it-all facade conceals his terror of the outside world. When Cosham reveals the character's vulnerability in one trembling, wide-eyed moment, the epiphany is wrenching.
Puttering about amiably, Dow lends an endearing touch of innocence to Philippe, a mildly paranoid womanizer who faints periodically because of shrapnel in his brain. With his plummy voice and beaming expressions, Tolaydo's bow-tied, cane-wielding Henri radiates a poignant exuberance. When Henri describes a young woman he worships from afar -- "like a flower . . . lissome . . . long-limbed" -- he seems to taste the words.
All the actors exhibit masterful command of the pause, the double-take, the tossed-off comment and the pointed glance -- techniques that allow them to calibrate the play's shifting, latticing moods. You always sense the approach-of-twilight uneasiness beneath the veterans' banter, and the mythic quality shimmering beneath those earthy, unseen poplars.
Heroes, by Grald Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard. Directed by John Vreeke; lighting design, Colin K. Bills. About 80 minutes.