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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Purple Heart
Gate Theatre Spring 2013

Four decades ago plays like David Rabe's Vietnam trilogy and films like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter helped America understand that the real story of the Vietnam War was that the casualties weren't all on the battlefield, and the effects of the war on those who stayed home and those who came back could be as tragic and far-reaching. 

In 2002 Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park) felt moved to retell the same story in much the same way, by showing a typical American family in the presumed safety of their home being destroyed by the war.

It's not an especially good play and it isn't helped by a flawed production. But it does eventually say what it wants to, and that is worth hearing. 

We are in what we will eventually realise is the middle-America home of a recent war widow, who is using alcohol and sleep to help her barely function. She lives with her bratty teenage son and her interfering mother-in-law, the sort of sweet, helpful, self-righteous and judgemental person who considers it her privilege and duty to tell those less pure than she where they are going wrong. 

They are visited by a wounded soldier who they assume is a buddy of the dead husband/son, but he turns out to have his own agenda. 

All four characters are emotionally or psychologically damaged, but in ways that would probably not rise to crisis level were it not for the war – the mother-in-law could have happily gone through life gossiping about neighbours, the boy was as likely to survive adolescence as any other kid, and so on. But these people, in this reality, are all falling apart because of the one overriding factor of the war. 

What gets in the way of the play's success, apart from the fact that others have done it better before, is that the playwright, for plot reasons, has to withhold so much information from us for so long that the play takes forever to find its focus, losing energy along the way. 

This is compounded by a production by Christopher Haydon that lacks – or takes too long to find – the essential anchor in a specific time and place that gives the play its meaning. 

Despite credit to a dialect coach, the cast have such a mix of accents, none of them midwestern American, that it takes the surprise appearance of someone in an American military uniform to tell us where we are, and the later mention of Asian whores to tell us when. 

Meanwhile, because some very significant facts about a couple of the characters have to be withheld until a shock ending, the actors have to behave in inexplicable ways that keep us from understanding or empathising with them. 

Of the four, Linda Broughton is most successful as the mother-in-law from a very particular kind of small-town hell, the actress making her thoroughly repellent while still capturing the complete lack of self-awareness that almost excuses her.

Amelia Lowdell lets us see that the widow is in pain, but is not allowed to tell us why and so must always remain a distance from our sympathy. The text says the boy is twelve, though Oliver Coopersmith settles for generic snarky sixteen-or-so-year-old. 

The soldier is the weakest-written character of the four, and also has to keep secrets until the end, and Trevor White's solution is to play him so blankly and otherworldly that I half expected him to turn out to be not really there, like the detective in Priestley's An Inspector Calls.

(He is there, and he is real, and he turns out to be the most damaged of the lot, but by the time you learn that, you can't really care about him.) 

Clybourne Park was a work of original vision and accomplishment that deservedly won every possible best play award a couple of years ago. But at its best Purple Heart is a pale reworking of David Rabe's Sticks and Bones or James Duff's The War At Home, and this production does not show it at its best.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Purple Heart - Gate Theatre 2013 

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