Flying at Half-Mast
An old woman lies dying as her son sits by the bedside. Tension vibrates between them. Each character offers a poetic monologue that feels a bit forced; when a playwright has someone gaze out above the heads of the audience and wistfully emote, the writing needs to be more powerful and original than it is here. But still, the opening scene of A Folded Flag is interesting, particularly since the woman, Abbey Grigson, is played by the always-excellent Patty Mintz Figel, and Ben, the son, by the equally excellent Paul Page. We find ourselves liking the brisk Irish nurse who pops in now and then to tend to Abbey, and enjoying our dislike for the overzealous physical therapist who torments her. The time is 1991; the first Gulf War is in progress, and it's clear that playwright James R. Cannon has something to say about war and the young men who are sent off to fight it.
The action alternates between the hospital room and the Grigson living room at the beginning of World War II. There, Abbey and her husband, Jack, argue bitterly about a radio he's bought so that he can hear the news -- she feels they need a new couch more -- and you begin to realize just how dysfunctional this couple is. Abbey's a complainer and Jack's a bad-tempered alcoholic. They unite to bully their art-loving son, Jimmy, into signing up, and though he resists, he eventually finds himself drafted. The Grigsons' neighbors are Jesse and Jacob Zimmerman, German Jews who escaped the Nazis; a love affair develops between Jimmy and the Zimmermans' daughter, Sarah. Jack's anti-Semitism erupts when Jacob gets a promotion that he believes should have been his. Sarah begins throwing up a great deal -- and we all know what that means. Jimmy leaves for the war and is soon reported missing. Jack commits suicide. Abbey is filled with grief and guilt.
There's plenty of plot here, and the script starts many hares that are worth pursuing. But once they're up and running, Cannon appears to lose interest in them. People spout cliches, and there are long minutes of uninterrupted shouting. Some of the action isn't credible, and we don't entirely accept the characters, either. Perhaps if the play had convinced us that the Zimmermans were very religious, and horrified by Sarah's love for a non-Jew, we might have believed they would disown their only daughter for having an out-of-wedlock baby. But A Folded Flag never suggests this level of religious commitment. Besides, these are people whose relatives are dying by the score in Europe for the crime of being Jews. It's impossible that they would reject their only -- and Jewish -- grandchild. Their predicament has potential, but the playwright never exploits this rich vein of possibilities.
It's a problem that Abbey, despite Figel's valiant attempts to humanize her, is so unpleasant. Her voice grates. She's either confrontational or sorry for herself. By the end of the play, she recognizes the damage she's done, but her penitence doesn't make her any more likable. Ben has a secret that he thinks he ought to share with his mother -- but he never does, thus depriving us of the revelatory scene we've been expecting and all the fascinating complications that could have followed. When he does reveal two secrets after Abbey's death, one of them turns out to be something we've already figured out, and the second seems anti-climactic. As for the rest of the cast, Will Brown, who plays Jack, is clearly talented, but he's struggling against a uni-dimensional role; the work of Sheri Davis and Joe Wilson as the Zimmermans is marred by unconvincing German accents. There are some good moments between Ben and the Irish nurse, played empathetically by Theresa Reid, who also gives us a charming, fragile Ruth. And Travis Goodman has an unaffected quality that makes Jimmy very appealing.
It's important -- and always risky -- to stage original, local work, and both Night Hawk Productions and director Christopher Leo should be thanked for bringing A Folded Flag to the stage for this world premiere. Somewhere beneath the superfluities and superficialities, mis-timings and mis-speakings, there's a decent play struggling to get out.
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