“War is our imprint, war is our mark… war is absolutely what we do,” states Uncle Pinkie in Finding the Rooster, the new production at the 13th Street Repertory Company written and directed by Terence Patrick Hughes. The play focuses on a family at war – both through its complex involvement with the military and international armed conflicts, and because of the family’s internal struggles. A married couple, Richard and Evelyn Fine, are in the throes of a bitter divorce when Richard makes the choice to have their misbehaving son, Oscar, “dismantled” into many small pieces and then reassembled once he has arrived at military school. The Fines have already lost one son in military conflict, and Pinkie, Oscar’s uncle on his mother’s side, was named a war hero for his experiences in the D-Day landing at Normandy. What Pinkie did was “find the rooster;" he won a medal for the way in which he would enter small villages and kill the local rooster, the town’s alarm clock, allowing the soldiers time to occupy the town before the citizens awoke. In addition, Richard’s family, whose nouveau riche status is noted, has made its wealth through the production of weaponry; they have become rich off of war.
All of this amounts to a very complicated story. It is often hard to tie all of the loose threads of the story together in order to create a cohesive whole. The play is clearly in the same vein as such dramatic classics as Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, but does not add anything new to the conversation about the conflict that can arise from family money being procured off of war, particularly a war to which the family has sacrificed a family member’s life. The world of the play is aware of the dense literary world in which it exists; the characters, particularly Pinkie, are preoccupied with the great authors and classic works of literature, they quote constantly from famous writing, and the play’s second act is entirely set within a library.
In this second act, which is more directly centered around Oscar and Pinkie than was the first act (the first act is much more driven by the divorce plot-line and the actual dismantling of Oscar), the play hits on its most compelling theme, the point that makes it unique from many other plays about the effects of war on families. Because Pinkie has such a close relationship with literature – he tells exciting tales of times spent with the greatest authors of the twentieth century – and because Pinkie has made such an impression on Oscar through these stories, the second act highlights the strange relationship between great literary art and war. Many of the authors mentioned or cited had themselves lived through important military conflicts, even having directly participated in some cases. Pinkie himself is a veteran of war and a storyteller.
It is clear that the fantastical tales that Pinkie tells of his great adventures with these literary giants have allowed him to escape the reality of his life, and perhaps to suppress or erase what he experienced during wartime. The play sets out an interesting comparison between war as a cause of experiences, and literature as a potential effect of such experiences. It almost seems as if literature can act as a protection or as an antidote to conflict. In a particularly telling moment, bookcases are used to hold back a slew of divorce lawyers who are attempting to break-in to the library. The particular shelves used are chosen for their “weight.”
Hughes’s play also raises interesting questions about identity for each of the characters; they grapple with who they are and how this persona can be defined. Is identity defined through one’s clothes (Oscar is preoccupied with wearing his late brother’s military attire, for example), through the stories one relates of one’s own life (in the case of Pinkie), through one’s financial status (the difference between Evelyn’s old and Richard’s new wealth), or through the opinions of others? However, these compelling questions are sometimes hard to keep track of during the play because there are so many things going on simultaneously. In addition, much action is kept off-stage, because each act is grounded in a sole location. Because so much is told and not shown, it is hard to recall exactly what has happened and what it means to and for each of the characters. It is very much a text-driven play, and there is a lot of information of which to keep track.
So much of the action is driven by dialogue, and perhaps because of this, there are many good one-liners throughout the play. In particular, Stoker, who comes in to dismantle Oscar, is given a great deal of very humorous quips. In his portrayal of Stoker, Reggie Oldham delivers these jokes with punch and verve. Kevin Hauver portrays Pinkie in such a manner as to encapsulate beautifully the thin line between reality and fiction when one tells of one’s own life. His speeches are poignantly written and very well-performed. The rest of the actors – Jonathan Harper Schlieman, Kathryn Neville Browne, and Dave Benger – try their hardest to keep the energy high no matter which of the issues raised by the play is at stake. If the text were slightly less at war with itself over which is the main theme and directed more precisely at one issue, then perhaps the play would be able to have a clearer effect on its viewer.