What stands out most in The Theatre Factory’s production of Steven Dietz’s Last of the Boys is William Mitas’ commanding set design. The small 7-row theatre feels dwarfed by the massive set, looming as large as memories of the Vietnam War that provide the play’s backdrop. What begins as an annual visit and looks to be a shoot the shit session between Vietnam vets and friends, Ben (Dennis Kerr) and Jeeter (William Mitas, doing double duty as set designer), reveals layers as the visit progresses. Ben’s trailer sits nest-like atop the bald tires it’s perched on and provides the stage’s focal point. The trailer’s exterior looks like it would be at home in a modern-day reclaimed wood kitchen, but in fact, it’s just old and weather-beaten, much like Ben and Jeeter.
Before either main character even appears on stage, one starts to piece together Ben’s history as a proud veteran. Faded stickers plastered on the trailer and the outdoor icebox for beer read ARMY and Made in the USA. Despite being set in California, another sticker is in the shape of Michigan, and there’s a bumper sticker for the Great Lakes, letting us know this Midwestern boy landed far from home but maintains pride in his roots. The push and pull of home versus California is immediately relevant. As the play begins, Jeeter has just arrived at Ben’s, having driven from Ben’s father’s funeral in Michigan, which Ben chose not to attend, letting us know long-simmering father/son issues are now destined to remain forever unresolved.
Both men are gray and grizzled, and costume designer Matt Mylnarski neatly affirms their places in society with his costuming. Ben is a recluse with no need to impress anyone, as evidenced by his all-denim dad style. Jeeter is a humanities professor who teaches a course on the 1960s and has a penchant for bedding his female undergrads. Mitas appropriately plays Jeeter as bouncy and hyped, desperate to exude youth, but his bandana and t-shirt with an acid-tripping Rolling Stones logo paired with camouflaged cargo pants belong to a man who still hasn’t bridged the gap to the present.
The play’s primary faults lie in the writing itself. Steven Dietz cuts between the present and Ben’s enactments of Vietnam-era scenes as he channels Robert McNamara who was his father’s boss and the controversial Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. The awkward shifts are magnified by director Sue Kurey who seems unsure about how to elegantly handle the transitions and simply turns the lights blue during these scenes. Kerr does well in playing the slightly downtrodden and grumpy Ben, but he struggles with making these historical enactments believable, looking like a cat that’s embarrassed when it inadvertently falls off the couch. The Young Soldier (Domenic Jungling) who appears with Ben in these scenes seems as if he would be more at home in an Abercrombie ad than military regalia and could have used stronger directorial guidance from Kurey as he struggles awkwardly even in executing a crisp military walk. The narrative contribution for the Vietnam-era scenes is unclear, and one questions to what extent it’s in Ben’s mind until Jeeter’s new girlfriend, Salyer (Kaylyn Farneth), intrudes unexpectedly and questions Ben on what he’s doing.
Salyer and her mom Lorraine (played by her actual mother, Pam Farneth) round out the cast. Lorraine is an angry alcoholic, but Farneth’s rage is expressed as a high-pitched screech, her accent wavers, and the love that supposedly charges that anger never feels authentic. Lorraine’s character does get some memorable lines, and Farneth drolly owns, “Good whiskey doesn’t need a first name.” While Salyer is Jeeter’s girlfriend, she’s also 25 years younger than him, and Kurey never cultivates any detectable heat in this May-December romance. Dietz fails to flesh out Salyer’s character and properly motivate her actions, so she comes across as unpredictable with no discernable rhythm to her decisions. Yet, both women are scarred, and the barriers around the love-seeking heart have achingly passed from one generation to the next.
I parked in front of the American Legion down the street from the theatre, and walking back to the car, I noticed a sign in front of the building “Drill a Well. Bring a Soldier Home.” It’s a message to promote fracking, the operative theory being the natural gas industry will play savior by both providing domestic jobs and diminishing our military needs abroad with reduced dependence on foreign oil. War, what are we fighting for? We’re reminded this question is as hauntingly relevant today as it was during Vietnam.
Last of the Boys plays through October 22nd at The Theatre Factory in Trafford, PA. To reserve tickets and more information, click here.