If we never make sense of Vietnam assuming there is even a shard of sense to be found in that long nightmare -- it's not because our playwrights aren't trying. Richard Wesley, for one, is certainly trying in "Strike Heaven on the Face," an earnest, episodic drama that made its world premiere at Howard University last night.
Wesley is retelling the disturbing story of Dwight Johnson, a highly decorated, black Vietnam veteran, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and, for a while, one of the Army's proudest exhibits, until he was gunned down in Detroit while allegedly robbing a grocery. What happened? How does a man go haywire? What awful messages are buried deep in the troubled psyches of our Vietnam vets? The questions won't go away.
Johnson has already served as the basis for one drama, Tom Cole's affecting "Medal of Honor Rag" at the Folger Theatre six years ago. Set in a drab psychiatrist's office, that play attempted to trace Johnson's life solely through his wary encounters with an Army shrink. Wesley takes an entirely different approach. In 21 scenes, he dogs Johnson's footsteps from his homecoming party to his melodramatic death. In between, we see him fighting his demons; fighting his mother, a pillar of old-fashioned rectitude; fighting his wife, who wants to understand but can't; and fighting his best friend, who offers such self-evident advice as this: " 'Less you get ahold a somethin', man, you gonna die."
Ghosts from the battlefield intrude on Johnson's thoughts. Guilt chases after him like a rabid dog. Meanwhile, the Army bigwigs trot him out before the public as a hero, living proof that all is well on the Eastern front.
Clearly, this is a subject of great theatrical power, but Wesley's play jolts to life only periodically. Granted, this student production is not about to tap the play's full resources (although Joseph P. Walker is persuasive in the role of the doomed Johnson, and Rhonda Lynette Lynch is sometimes touching as his bewildered wife). Nor am I convinced of the wisdom of staging what is basically a cinematic work in the round.
Wesley, however, hasn't made matters easy. The writing is diffuse and meandering. Instead of one revelatory argument, he gives us four. At least twice, the veteran wakes up with sweaty nightmares. And he takes his wife to task so many times that he begins to sound prerecorded. Horrific as events were in Vietnam, repetition alone does not make them more horrific.
The problem, I suspect, is that Wesley, confronted with a tangled life of unsettling implications and chilling dimensions, doesn't want to pull any punches. But by attempting to throw them all, he's squandered his energies. "Strike Heaven on the Face" cries out to be concentrated.
STRIKE HEAVEN ON THE FACE. By Richard Wesley. Directed by Kelsey E. Collie; with Joseph P. Walker, Rhonda Lynette Lynch, Monica White, Leonard Thomas. At Howard University's Blackburn Center through Nov. 20.