Carrying It with Us: The Soldier’s War

by Becca Jennings and Alexander Hehr

From compasses and rations to rabbit feet and lucky pebbles, a Vietnam War soldier’s pack was filled with items that varied by function. But all were carried with the same purpose—with the hope that these items would keep their keepers alive to see the next sunrise.

It takes a brave soldier to face the horrors of war. Sometimes, it takes even more courage to talk about such unfathomable experiences. Although the stories that make up the tapestry of the regional premiere of The Things We Carried, our third play in this year’s Stage III Series, have been fictionalized, the words are grounded in author Tim O’Brien’s personal experience traversing the sodden rice paddy fields of Vietnam as a soldier.

Like the playwright, our story seems to escape the grip of the unforgiving Vietnam jungle, taking place entirely in the home office of a novelist with an insistent story to tell.As the actor feverishly tries to compile his ideas, stories, and experiences into a book about the Vietnam War, the home office setting is transformed into a vivid battleground of truth and memory. The sights and sounds of war explode on set, revealing the ways trauma follows a person into the safety of our own country, our own homes, and even our own minds.

While items like machine guns, rucksacks, and ammunition may weigh a U.S. Vietnam War soldier down in the hot and unrelenting jungle, the memories and nightmares soldiers carried home with them proved much heavier burdens to bear.

In The Things They Carried, the audience is presented with the soldier’s viewpoint of the Vietnam War—whether trying to outrun the draft, or outlive a foreign enemy in the strange, new terrain of guerilla warfare.

While the draft and war ended over 40 years ago, many Vietnam veterans are still struggling in post Vietnam War America. According to the National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study, 15-36% of male veterans experience lifelong Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and between 8-16% of female veterans experience the same PTSD. Charles Marmar, the co-author of this report, expands on why they choose to go through with this study, “It tells you something very profound about the commitment of these veterans, who are now in their mid-to-late-60s and still really wanted to tell their story,” says Marmar. “There is something very powerful in the social fabric of the American experience about Vietnam and how controversial Vietnam was, and maybe for these veterans the fact that many of them were unwelcome when they returned. For them it’s very important to be able to tell their story now.”

Solo shows can be especially powerful vehicles for storytelling. One-person plays like Stories by Heart with John Lithgow, and John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Dummies have made a big splash in the contemporary theatre scene. For regional theatres like FST, solo performance is surging back as a staple of the theatrical season. One-person plays can offer an intimate look into the mind of a single character, like in Grounded from last season’s Stage III season, a one-woman performance about an ace fighter pilot whose unexpected pregnancy ends her career in the sky. In other works, like FST’s 2017 Summer Mainstage presentation of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, a story about the mysterious disappearance of a 14 year-old New Jersey boy, a single actor onstage can embody many characters—either truthfully, or as caricatures. The Things They Carried tackles both styles, melding Tim O’Brien’s personal viewpoint with the multiple characters his story encompasses, creating an in-depth and captivating experience.

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