James McClure's Pvt. Wars was written in another time about another war, but like all good war stories it is just as relevant now as it was in the 1970's. Even though its three main characters are Vietnam veterans, McClure focuses not on the politics of that conflict but on the effect it had on these young soldiers, who have committed themselves to a veterans' hospital hoping to find some peace, away from their private demons. What makes the play compelling is that it is told in the details of their present lives instead of focusing on the horrific past events that changed them, or the bleakness that we suspect will be their future. The setting is a sterile-looking lounge, mostly bare with only a single table in its far-left corner. A goofy-looking young man in a long flannel robe, Gateley (Ethan Baum), is often seated at the table fiddling with a broken radio. There is something simple and nonthreatening about Gateley that ingratiates him with a hyper, unpredictable soldier named Silvio (Chapin Springer). Meanwhile, a third man, a stuffy intellectual from a wealthy background named Natwick (Jeffry Denman), rubs everyone the wrong way.
Baum, Denman, and Springer are three very watchable, amusing, and magnetic performers who display great chemistry with one another. Baum plays Gateley with a sweet, childlike innocence that could believably win over guys like Silvio and Natwick, performed wonderfully by Springer and Denman as tightly wound, chronically depressed characters with some shreds of goodness still left in them.
Their interaction in the lounge feels extremely natural, reminiscent of three bored college students sitting in their dorm, looking for ways to avoid doing work, which is most likely what other young men their age are doing. Unfortunately for these men, their dorm is a hospital lounge, where they delight in causing mischief and trading jokes that seem to come from an authentic place inside themselves, not a survival tactic you would expect them to use to get through the day.
Even when these soldiers have sunk to their lowest mental state, they still engage in silly frat house behavior: chugging beer, playing childish pranks, and competing to see who can do the best Tarzan yell—Silvio, by far—though it is Natwick who is declared the winner for his unexpected effort. They discuss the mystery of women and techniques for getting their attention, and even engage in a role-playing game where Gateley stumps Silvio by pretending to be a lesbian—the only seduction scenario Silvio can envision himself not succeeding in.
We learn that Gateley is fixing the radio for a fallen comrade with missing arms and legs. Everyone expects this man will die, and when he finally does, Natwick bluntly reports the news to Gateley, thinking it will put an end to his project. Surprisingly, it doesn't. Gateley continues toiling with the parts, explaining that it is symbolic of his psyche: if the radio can be repaired, so can America, and if there is hope for America, he can leave the ward. Or so he says.
In some respects, the three men help each other to heal, but in other ways they hold each another back, unwilling to see a comrade make progress that they feel themselves incapable of making. The thinking seems to be that if one man gets out, another will, and then the third will be left to face his demons alone.
For all the humor Gateley, Natick, and Silvio use to hide their pain, the very fact that they are here, in this lounge, is proof that it exists. McClure's writing grants us a ray of light, a silver lining, as Gateley calls it before Natwick reminds him, "Take away that silver lining and all you have is a cloud. A very dark cloud." Fortunately, PVT Wars exists in the silver lining, and thin as it is, its lovably flawed characters and moments of dazzling comedy are ultimately successful in distracting us from the surrounding darkness.