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Imagine a world in which poetry matters. Imagine characters who earnestly seek to explore life's mysteries through the power of verse and words; who believe Keats was right, that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all/ Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know." Imagine the cold, clean order of a hospital for nervous disorders in Scotland, where World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, both victims of shell shock, forge a passionate friendship on poetry and pacifism.
In the American Citizens' Theatre inaugural production of Stephen MacDonald's 1982 play Not About Heroes, that world is effectively and persuasively evoked. Curiously, however, the play (staged by founding Artistic Director Allen McKelvey, who also designed the set) manages in the end to thwart its own dramatic ambitions: Rather than move us with a tender, platonic love story, Not About Heroes comes close to foundering in sentimental idealism.
Both Owen and Sassoon made their literary reputations writing poetry that deglamorizes war and thrusts its horrors into the unsuspecting reader's face. Owen's most acclaimed work -- produced in a frenzy in the trenches of France -- was later set by composer Benjamin Britten as the War Requiem, used here as incidental music.
The play begins as Owen (Andrew Hurteau) and Sassoon (Robert Parsons) are saying goodbye. Owen, fully recovered from a battlefield breakdown, has been pronounced fit for duty and is about to return to the front. To avoid the obvious gravity of the situation -- Sassoon will remind us over and over that Owen has less than a year to live -- and for their amusement, Sassoon reads from a volume of hideously overripe, old-fashioned verse. The friends' awkward parting is made more poignant by a clumsy hug.
Narrated thereafter in flashbacks by Sassoon and letters by Owen, the play recalls their initial meeting: how Owen, the worshipful apprentice, approaches Sassoon, a certified hero, lately called a traitor for his anti-war poems and sent to languish far from public attention; how each man's loneliness is dispelled by delight in the other's company; and how idealism takes each back to the hell of combat and costs Owen his life.
While Not About Heroes seems to focus on war and the way writers like Sassoon and Owen forever dispelled the myth of battle as a noble calling, its dramatic arc is their relationship. Pure and simple, it sets out to be a love story. Where it fails, ironically, is in MacDonald's rapturous admiration, which borders on hero worship, and his reluctance to introduce conflict. We hear in letters and asides about Sassoon's inability to pay his pupil a compliment; of Owen's growing attachment to his mother; we know a homoerotic bond is developing between the men, and yet the play seems interested in avoiding confrontation at all costs. While this is effective initially, ultimately it gets tedious and robs the drama of the powerful punch it hints at.
The play succeeds in the luminous writing, McKelvey's direction, and the intelligently wrought performances by Parsons and Hurteau. As Sassoon, Parsons exhibits an old-before-his-time physical frailty which, in a masterful twist, he plays against with emphatic, biting diction. His grin is a shield, raised at crucial moments to deflect emotion. He is eloquent in his silences, and passionate in his necessary stillness. He endows Sassoon with self-deprecating amazement at Owen's adoration, and then allows this wonderment to bloom into frank, devoted love.
Hurteau is considerably less appealing as Owen, coming off as stuffy and affected much of the time. Where he succeeds is in painting Owen as a painfully young idealist, too caught up in his own romantic notions of war, peace, honor, and poetry to see the real anguish his flirtation with death is causing his friend. Hurteau's Owen is a product of his own myth-making, a declaimer who seems never to let down his guard. While I sometimes felt Hurteau was overdoing it, in the end his performance seemed designed to focus on Owen as actor and poseur.
McKelvey's direction is spare, restrained, and carefully lyrical. He barely moves his players at all, yet manages to place them strategically for optimum effect. Their one stroll out of doors puts them close to the audience and to each other and creates a palpable intimacy. McKelvey's set design (well enhanced by Gregg Pellegrini's lighting and Joy Perry-Thistle's costumes) combines a simple snow-covered exterior with minimal versions of the hospital and Sassoon's room. (His choice of theater at the Central YMCA seems less well considered, however, both for neighborhood and noise from the next-door cafe.)
As I began thinking about the play, I kept coming back to the title (taken from the preface to Owen's book), which coyly specifies what it is not about. It's also not about gay rights (even though both writers have been claimed as gay authors), not about war, not even about love. It is about romantic idealism and its preservation at all costs. As Sassoon and Owen debate the most effective way to put their beliefs into action -- Sassoon eventually returns to the front rather than remain in isolation in Scotland -- their mutual passions for poetry and peace create a tantalizingly erotic bond. I found myself thinking that it was a shame their inhibitions were clearly going to prevent what would surely be one of the world's great love matches. Then I realized how wrong I was -- that those very inhibitions were keeping the flame bright. Even with the brutal horrors of war looming so large, Sassoon and Owen's relationship remained remarkably pristine. And without the bothersome realities that usually intrude on intimate relationships, they could -- as Sassoon does -- spend the rest of their lives sweetly pining. And the ideals for which they both lived, and, in Owen's case, died, seem naive and ultimately untested.
Not About Heroes runs through March 19 at American Citizens' Theatre at the Central YMCA in S.F.; call 664-7014.
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