Heroes by Gerald Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Cathy Lee-Visscher. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
John Trainor, George Filieau, William M. Sanderson; photo: Dan Region
"I had one of my spells. . .and I fell in."
One of the interesting aspects of doing what I do is seeing different productions of plays, often within a short period of time. To some that may seem a dull way to pass the time, but to a critic it is a fascinating aspect of this curious job. Each company finds different routes through the complicated relationships the playwright has composed. Every production gives the avid and devoted observer new meanings, new concepts and new resolutions to the problems that abound in a good play.
Cathy Lee-Visscher has done all of that with "Heroes," a play that Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA presented just one season ago with a stellar company of member players: Robert Lohbauer, Malcolm Ingram and Jonathan Epstein. In the current production only John Trainor is as familiar as his predecessor; one man is making his company debut and another is reprising a role from another production. Similarly a fourth character, non-speaking, is repeating his role from the Shakespeare and Company production with the permission of Robert Lohbauer, Hero, the Dog.
What Lee-Visscher has done this time around is to create distance for the three men, Henri, Gustave and Phillipe. Henri and Phillipe are old friends, retired soldiers who have occupied space in the retirement home of veterans which has recently been invaded by the solitary old soldier Gustave. He leaves his room only for meals and for his time on the private terrace he shares with the other two. Henri (Trainor) and Phillipe (William M. Sanderson) have a quiet simpatico about them. Neither one completely understands or appreciates Gustave (George Filieau). In Lee-Visscher's view of these men they are rarely ever physical with one another; rather they observe and comment without participation in each other's realities. It is almost as though their shared understanding of Hero, the Dog, is what keeps them together.
Sibleyras, the author, allows us to eavesdrop on this trio or quartet and Stoppard allows us to smile and even laugh with them. The director pushes a few other buttons permitting us to be amused by their attitudes about their limited lives, to experience their failings, to be enhanced by their aspirations. The result here is greater sympathy for the bluster of Gustave, more empathy for the failings of Phillipe and additional understanding of the aggressive seperateness of Henri. It is a lovely achievement for all involved, the actors, the director and the dog.
There is not much plot here. A scheme is devised, planned out, organized and aborted as only a military maneuver might be drawn. One single revelation is obtained. Another admission of sinful guilt is handled without the graciousness that might be part of the confession. We are on the terrace with men who have reached that point in life where everything is contained in the details. We come away with that wonderful feeling of relief that we are not these men and yet we share our gratitude with them for their willingness to be honest in front of us.
The director is also responsible for the set design which works wonderfully. Joanne Maurer's subtle changes in costumes help to give us the men. Grace Fay and Max LaGonia have lit the play with those slight alterations of light that happen at the same time of day, day after day. These production values really do provide a sense of time and place reality that helps the director's vision of moments caught by unknown watchers.
I wasn't sure when the play was announced that I'd garner much from seeing another production of this play so soon after the excellent edition I'd seen in Lenox. I am thrilled with the newness of this play in Ghent, the excitement of discovery of new things I had not noticed the first time around. All of the participants should clap one another on other backs and take personal credit for jobs well done in a play about jobbers who want things done right. Right turn, fall in. Phillipe knows what I'm talking about. So will you.
HEROES plays at the Ghent Playhouse, off route 66 in Ghent, NY through February 8. For information and tickets go to ghentplayhouse.org or call 1-800-838-3006.