The glory of war and courage of our veterans are two topics our country never shies away from speaking about, but when it comes to the repercussions it can have on our soldiers, who are often times extremely young, we tend to be more hesitant. Well Ray Wermer certainly wasn’t scared to project the harsh truth behind cruel war through his thoughtfully written play, Christmas Star, on Saturday at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater. The story revolves around a young man named Kenny Hudson (Anthony Gullikson) who winds up in a hospital with a partially amputated foot after his Middle Eastern tour with fellow injured soldiers Eduardo Sanchez (Lamont Walker II) and Mick McGuire (LaTrea Rembert). Though they were not in the same platoon, the boys are able to relate to each other through stories of their upbringing, reasons for enlisting, and terrors they faced on the battlefield.
The opening scene relives a horrific experience Kenny encountered when entering the home of a foreign family during a nighttime raid. He believes he has killed the baby of this family by accidentally stepping on the child’s head. We come to find out later that this is a recurring nightmare Kenny has in the hospital, which the doctors attribute as another symptom of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis he has received upon returning from war. This first scene threw me off a bit as the flashing lights and loud background sounds of sirens also included a recording of the actor’s voices in the scene, which I felt could’ve been heard a little more clearly if the actors were speaking themselves as they preceded to do in the scenes that followed. I had no trouble hearing the actors and seeing their personalities come to life in the next hospital scene where Kenny, Sanchez, and McGuire are all discussing the difficulties and unexpected hardships they faced during the war and upon returning.
As the boys begin discussing their dreams for the future, Nurse Grace (Dominique Briggs) enters and is immediately recognized as a mother figure for these boys while they are in the hospital, a role that she executes quite charismatically. The boys take their pharmaceutical drugs like robots of a broken system, but seem to find comfort in chatting with Grace about their aspirations and goals. The scene ends with Grace urging Kenny to return home for Christmas, but Kenny being uncertain as he left on rocky ground with his father due to them each taking different stances on his entrance into the war. McGuire cuts their conversation short to notify them of an attempted suicide attempt by Sanchez in the other room.
Act Two centers around Kenny’s return home to the Hudson household of his mother Gertie (Susie McGregor-Laine) and father Bernie (Bill Crean), who anxiously await his arrival. The tension could be felt through the theater as Gertie warns Bernie not to say anything discouraging to Kenny and Kenny enters the scene immediately avoiding an inevitable conversation by bringing up more pleasant memories. It isn’t long, though, before the arguing over opposing stances on war ensues and Bernie rushes out of the room in anger. After a brief reflection in Kenny’s room, Bernie returns with a gruesome story from his time in the Vietnam war where he witnessed a soldier knock a young Vietnamese man unconscious, tie his intestines around a tree, and burn him alive upon his awakening. This story was a bit unbelievable to me. I would imagine that if my intestines were in the process of being tied around a tree I would immediately awaken from an unconscious state, but then again the only experience I’ve had that could even be slightly comparable to this situation would be the after effects of 2am Taco Bell trip. Nevertheless, the story was effective in illustrating the devastation that events like this can have on an individual’s mental state and the brokenness that can protrude into family life.
At the end of this scene, Kenny presents his father with the Silver Star he won on the battlefield as a symbolic replacement of Bernie’s Purple Heart that he threw over the White House fence in the midst of an anti-war rally many years ago. Kenny is able to recognize the good intentions behind his father’s anti-war stance while Bernie is able to acknowledge the admiration he has for his son. The play ends with a beautiful poem from Sanchez on the struggles of war and Rembert’s talented voice filling McGuire with an impeccable song. To me, this symbolized the boys being able to overcome their hardships and channeling their energy into their artistic ability and served as the perfect ending to this exquisite twist of a holiday story.
Christmas Star is running four more dates through December 28 and tickets can be purchased here.
Special thanks to Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company for two complimentary press tickets.
Performance Date: December 13, 2014