By Joey Phoenix
"This Land Was Made for You and Me"
Letters from War is an evocative portrayal of the struggle of those left behind when their loved ones go off to war, only to never return. The emotional difficulties of parting with those you love are amplified by the harsh realities of attempting to continue the day-to-day rigors of life without them. As the years stretch onward and the chances of their return seem less likely with each passing day, the turmoil on the mind often becomes too much to bear. Loss has the unfortunate tendency of causing a person dealing with overwhelming grief to become stuck in time. An individual under duress such as this will relive the past alongside the present, a fact only worsened by the presence of mental illness.
In Letters from War, Bertone narrows in on a family living in modern Mississippi, telling their story through gripping choreography and classic American folk songs. The family consists of a grandmother with a debilitating disease, namely Alzheimer's, a daughter who has grown up without a father and has taken on the exhausting role of caretaker for her ailing mother, and a granddaughter on the brink of adulthood who is somehow stuck in the middle of everything. In the small, simple house where they live, nostalgia remains ever present, and memory exists uncomfortably alongside reality.
The story centers around the grandmother, Mae who, as a result of her disease, experiences the sorrows and intermittent joys of the distant past simultaneously to the present. Her daughter, Lily, unable to cope with her mother’s behavior and frequent references to her long dead father, Clayton, a fallen soldier in the Vietnam War, has made the difficult decision to send her mother to a nursing home. Lily is further exasperated by the fact that her own daughter, Madison, indulges Mae’s nostalgic flights of fancy in effort to learn more about the grandfather she never knew. The more Madison asks about her grandfather, the more Mae retreats into her own history, and although Clayton is long gone, for Mae, it’s as if he never truly left.
It is a testament to Nate Bertone’s dual writing and staging prowess that the scenes of past and present successfully merge during the performance. For the World Premiere of Letters from War at Salem Theatre Company, the audience was transported back in time to 1960s Mississippi, flown overseas to the swamps and battlegrounds of wartime Vietnam, and carried to the modern deep south, many times all at once. The experience of the performance is jarring at first, as the story arc pulls the viewer in many different directions. We are empathetic to Lily whose life has held no mercy, we are sympathetic to Mae whose young romance was taken from her before it could blossom, and we are heartsick for the young Clayton, a soldier so full of life who never was able to return to his family – a family who will never be able to forget him.
Much can be said too of a performance that was only able to realize 60 minutes of an idealized 90 minute production. The crew only had 12 days to rehearse, and one role was only added three days prior to the beginning of the production. Yet, despite the lack of development that would have crippled other performances, the actors were able to effectively portray the complex emotions inherent within the story with only minor ambiguities. It is easy to imagine just how powerful the story may yet become once its true vision has been realized.
Next up for Salem Theatre Company is The Normal Heart, directed by Catherine Bertrand, running from June 11 - Sunday June 27 in correspondence with North Shore Pride Week. You can get tickets to one of these performances by following this link.
Images by Nate Bertone