Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home, a trio of monologues about the postwar experiences of veterans, focuses on the insurmountable stresses on those who have been emotionally and psychologically scarred by war. Author J.A. Moad II, who has written and performs the plays, is himself a veteran. It is, perhaps, impossible for a civilian who has never endured combat to understand what it’s like, but civilian vs. military mindsets have underpinned plays from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to David Hare’s Plenty (1978), whose heroine Susan Traherne, after fighting for the French Resistance, thrashes about in an unfulfilling civilian life that can never excite her as much as living on the knife’s edge.
Moad comes at the issue by indirection for much of the production. The first two stories are told by family members of veterans. It’s a bit of a dramatic Rorschach test for the viewer, who must pull together the themes, and, as an added challenge, the first story is narrated by a gabby 7-year-old with a rifle, who has grown up amid the gun and hunting culture of areas outlying the Kentucky city of the title, near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
The boy talks about his friend Benny and a ghost that inhabits his home. It is soon apparent that the noises of the “ghost” are the nighttime screams of his father, a former sniper, having PTSD flashbacks—“I heard mama talking it down, sayin’ how it needed to ‘stop it right now,’” the boy says. But the boy is too young to have made the connection between what his father did and his parent’s zombified state: “When it’s nice out, mama sets papa out here on the porch in that old rocking chair…. He likes to stare out into the trees. I always straighten out his baseball cap….” While the ghost is a semi-realistic presence in the first play, eventually it’s clear that all the characters are all haunted in some way.
The second play focuses on a man seeking work from a Mr. Simms, and the monologue alternates between his discussion with Simms and his memories. Deserted by his wife, the man raised his son, who was bullied in school and ultimately saw combat in the Marines after 9/11; the speaker’s memories also encompass the life of his own father, who fought at Guadalcanal. Threaded through this play is a subtle exploration of the effects of racism and miscegenation in the time period.
The final play presents a veteran in person, and the monologue is corrosive: “I’ve done bad things. … Bad things were my job, and when you do your job right, the bad things rack up into a giant bill, and the only way to pay it off is to harvest the bad all over again.” The three monologues together present a warrior at different stages: cultivated as a child by notions of military heroism; struggling with the burdens of family and honor in a civilian world; and finally, the firsthand accounting of ruin by disillusion and the lingering nightmares of combat: “I’d peeked inside body bags filled with school kids and old women…. I studied the open eyes of tortured men, their fingers, hands and heads sliced away on the road to paradise....”
The strength of Moad’s writing lies in the messy emotions that shift to the fore: uncertainty, desperation, sorrow, resentment and pain. There is an impressionistic, almost stream-of-conscious quality about them that, helped by Leah Cooper’s tight direction and the vivid projections from Lisa Renkel, helps a viewer to feel the despair. In the final, harrowing last play, a friend who lost a limb in combat provides a grim picture of a veteran who has slipped into depravity, and the narrator yearns for the violence that defined “living” for so long, echoing the point of Plenty but with visceral masculinity.
As an actor, Moad vividly embodies the characters. Although the child becomes a bit irritating to listen to, Moad gives the character all the gangliness, tics and braggadocio of a kid. His uneasy, noble job hunter is painful to watch, and the final portrait of a veteran who has become a barfly plumbs the depths of confusion and misery that the long wars have wrought on those who have served in the military.
Poetic Theater Productions’ presentation of Outside Paducah runs through Oct. 15 at the Wild Project (195 E. 3rd St. between Avenues A and B). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25; to purchase them, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit thewildproject.com.