I’m writing this on March 29—National Vietnam War Veterans Day—a fact that might lend some extra poignancy to a review of Florida Studio Theatre’s production of The Things They Carried, an adaptation by Jim Stowell of Tim O’Brien’s book about his Vietnam experience.
But in reality The Things They Carried doesn’t need any extra weight. As you can tell from the title, the characters of O’Brien’s world—mostly soldiers in his platoon—are already carrying plenty, and not just in terms of their ammunition, rations, rain gear, radios, mosquito repellent and other necessities. What they’re carrying in emotional and psychological terms will remain with them for years after they return home—for those who do return home, that is.
O’Brien was one of those who did, obviously. But in the crazy, chaotic jungle of war, that was never a given. Actor David Sitler, who skillfully plays all of the characters of this piece including O’Brien, is aided by Bryce Benson’s lighting and Jon Baker’s sound design in communicating the hell and uncertainty of the war, whether that comes through mortar fire, a tossed grenade, or a sudden torrential rainstorm. At any moment, a young soldier could lose his life in a variety of ways, and when that happens, Sitler’s performance brings it vividly to our senses.
Not all of the play takes place in Southeast Asia. Before he gets there, a young O’Brien, raised in a small Minnesota town and drafted right after graduating from college in 1968, must decide if he will respond to his draft notice or flee to Canada. It’s a wrenching decision, one he makes while staying at a lodge near the border run by an older man he calls “the hero” of his life.
Of course Sitler portrays him, too, as he does his fellow soldiers, whether it’s a hesitant first lieutenant, a gung-ho joker, or his best friend, Kiowa, whose calm understanding of his friend’s fears helps him get through the madness. The production is never static; there’s an energy and movement here that holds your attention throughout the approximately 90-minute show.
Sitler and director Kate Alexander worked with several area Vietnam veterans to gain a fuller understanding of their experience, and undoubtedly that research pays off in terms of bringing the audience the same. The Things They Carried is bound to leave those who lived during that era of the 1960s and ‘70s with some powerful memories, whether they served or not. And for them and also younger watchers, it’s a broader reminder of who pays the heaviest price whenever a nation goes to war.
The Things They Carried concludes FST’s Stage III series season in the Bowne’s Lab Theatre, running through April 13. For tickets call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.