Strange Pacific Overtures

The adulation of World War II veterans as a Band of Brothers doesn’t get much of a boost from Neal Bell’s 2000 play about Marines and sailors on a transport ship heading for Okinawa in 1945. Bell’s introduction to the published play (a portion is included in the playbill) cites the inspiration for this play as Coming Out Under Fire, Gay Men and Women in World War Two, by Allan Berube. A second bookWith the Old Breed, by Eugene B. Sledge, gave him a “nitty-gritty sense of what men living through that kind of combat endured,” he writes. And Bell’s homework shows in his use of period slang: “pogey” for a weak Marine, and “Don’t beat your gums” for “Shut up.” His first scene especially captures the tension and boredom of waiting for something to happen, but pretty quickly the play turns dark and surreal. Don’t look for valor here.

Bell intersperses real action with dreams. At times a scene occurs before the previous one, and it’s not always clear whether the action scenes are real—one between a gay teenage swabbie, Billy (nicely played with eagerness, caution and ennui by Michael Wrynn Doyle), and a married but spurned Marine named Hobie (John Stokvis), has them nuzzling high above the ship while swinging on ropes, as if they were in the rigging of an 18th-century frigate. You may spend time wondering how that is possible on a WWII-era ship rather than listening to the dialogue, until they suddenly fall into a void. And a short time later, two other men, Chotkowski and a sour loner named McGuiness, hear two thuds, as if bodies were hitting the deck.

It’s possible that the double thuds were not Billy and Hobie hitting the deck, but two torpedos that eventually do hit the ship—perhaps it’s within minutes, perhaps time has elapsed; the timeline, however, is disorienting, even on the printed page, since some scenes precede rather than follow the previous ones. Under Jim Petosa's direction it plays like a confused fever dream and tends to be off-putting. Laura J. Eckelman’s evocative lighting doesn't do much to sort the real from the dreams.

The warriors in his grim melodrama include the ship’s captain, Albers, who thinks he hears the voice of his dead son reciting his final bloodstained letter, which details the desecration of Japanese bodies by McGuiness. Albers is convinced someone has hijacked the public address system on the ship, so he pursues a Queeglike inquiry into his hallucination to find the culprit. His aide DeLucca (a fine Alec Strum), balks at the captain’s obsession and is one of the few men who seems solidly heterosexual and a mentally prepared professional warrior. McGuiness (James Smith), a sour, tight-lipped loner who served with the captain’s son, is racked with guilt about an incident of cowardice; his nightmare involves mutilation of the buddy he abandoned, a sweetly dim Southerner named Duane (a likable MacLeod Andrews). But does he carry a torch for Duane? Rounding out the group is Chotkowski, a strapping Marine who struggles to live with his fear of death and doesn’t balk at telling off the unstable Albers.

The actors all play their parts capably, although Malcolm Madera as the captain becomes mostly unintelligible when he yells during his big scene. What one doesn’t get is a feeling that the Marines are part of a unit, that they have some camaraderie and rapport in spite of their friction. (It’s ironic that many in the Potomac Theatre Company are graduates of Middlebury College in Vermont and presumably have worked together before.)

Bell’s inspiration, of course, suggests that the play will yield some insight into gay history, but not much happens beyond establishing that gays have always been in the military. There’s a nod to cross-dressing (and South Pacific), since Billy is rehearsing a drag show with a grass skirt and coconut bra, while on deck the dialogue comes off as bitchier than, say, in From Here to Eternity. But the play is less compelling in the end than the real-life brouhaha that the issue created during the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” debates of the 1990s.

Somewhere in the Pacific plays on a double bill with Sarah Kane's Crave. Because I misunderstood the starting time of Crave, which is 45 minutes long, I was unable to see it.

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