War of Words

"When a war kills many, we must mourn for them—and if you win the war, you must grieve it." Taken from the Tao Te Ching, this is the epigraph of Ann Nelson's new play, Savages, a dryly didactic but well-intentioned account of the real life of Maj. Littleton Waller, a Marine charged with war crimes in the U.S.-Philippines War of 1902. Nelson shot to fame in 2001 with The Guys, a play based on her own experience ghostwriting eulogies for a New York City fire captain who lost men in the events of 9/11. But where Nelson's persuasive, intense journalistic style brought welcome clarity to The Guys, it inhibits the dramatic development of Savages. If you're not familiar with the war, you're not alone. Relegated to a mere historical hiccup, it doesn't hold much of a place in history books, and Nelson valiantly aims to bring it into our contemporary zeitgeist (while drawing a none-too-subtle parallel to our current situation in Iraq). Nelson spent years researching the Philippines, and it shows—her copious research and expertise is evident throughout the play. But shoehorning so much information into a 90-minute play is not the wisest decision, and what should be a taut drama unfolds as a stiff chapter from a history textbook.

Nelson approaches the war from four viewpoints that each represent a different experience of war. Central to the story is Maj. Waller (James Matthew Ryan), a Virginia-born aristocrat-turned-Marine whose wartime experiences have left him mortally ill and emotionally wounded. He arrives at an apartment in Manila in the midst of his trial, and the other characters are charged with preserving him until the next morning, when his verdict will be delivered. John Hanley (Brett Holland), a young, war-hungry corporal from Oklahoma, keeps watch in Waller's room; Gen. Chaffee (Jim Howard), a brash, middle-aged Army devotee from Ohio, conveys Waller to and from the trial; and Maridol (Julie Danao-Salkin), a young Filipino nurse, is hired to keep Waller comfortable.

The complexity of each character's relationship with the war is arresting on paper, but their interactions soon begin to sag with heavy-handed metaphors and forced instances of cultural collision. As Waller teaches Hanley how to play chess, he explains, "It's all about learning the rules, boy. That's the test of civilized combat. Know the true character of every piece." The comparison between chess and war (and courtroom) becomes all too obvious, all too quickly. And Hanley's limited knowledge of Filipino culture plays out in moments of rather stock ignorance (as he questions Maridol's religious convictions and samples her food) to mostly unsatisfying ends.

The dialogue is so jammed with information that the characters often seem to provide their own footnotes, breaking dramatic flow and cutting themselves off. "I remember when the story hit the paper," Chaffee says, recalling how he heard about Waller's devastating actions. "I called Jake into my office and sat him down—just like the old days out West.... 'Smith,' I say, 'Have you been having any promiscuous killing in Samar for fun?' " These parenthetical asides ("just like the old days out West") serve to educate the audience rather than realistically reveal character. In this way, moments of wrenching conflict arrive unbidden, and without much effect, at the play's conclusion.

Although Ryan makes a concerted effort to be sincere, he, Holland, and Howard have a difficult time bringing believable dimension to rather weakly defined characters. Danao-Salkin, however, gives Savages its humanity. She carefully listens to the men, perceptibly thinking through her words and actions. She even manages to clearly ground a non sequitur emotional eruption late in the show. And her exquisite, raw delivery of a traditional Filipino song as she soothes Waller to sleep is truly haunting, capturing both the sorrow and hope of a people whose home has been ravaged by the effects of war.

Lauren Helpern's simple set fits agreeably into the intimate Lion Theater, but Chris Jorie's direction, while steady, maintains a lethargic tempo. Much of the action plays out in simple conversational style, but Jorie inexplicably (and perhaps suggestively?) places Maridol behind Waller in his bed as she sings. Ensconced by mosquito netting, they present an odd, Pietà-like image.

Although Nelson claims her play is neither "for nor against war," it nonetheless evokes—perhaps due to the strong performance by Danao-Salkin—a decidedly antiwar stance. Maridol is the voice of people whose lives have been uprooted by a country that wishes to both colonize and civilize them—drawing undeniable parallels to our present war. Nelson is a voracious source of facts that have the potential to inspire, instruct, and change society, but a play (Savages, at least) may not be the best forum for her unquestionably expansive skills.

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