Combat Fatigue

The beginning moments of local dramatist M. Scott Merrifield's play Desert Air are full of promise. As the Changing Scene's world-premiere production of this Gulf War-era drama begins, the strains of a popular rock song ("Video Killed the Radio Star") fade out while the stage lights illuminate a drab olive-green tent that houses a makeshift radio station affectionately called "Tragic 106." Then we hear a rumbling, almost volcanic sound that quickly erupts into the high-pitched shriek of a squadron of phantasmagorical low-flying warplanes.

As the station's DJ begins a rambling, song-ending riff, director Terrence Shaw's production seems ready to unfold into a cutting-edge Nineties look at the all-too-familiar subject of life during wartime. But despite the best efforts of nine enthusiastic actors (some of whom are students at the Community College of Denver, Changing Scene's producing partner for this show), Merrifield's characters quickly become prisoners of the playwright's prickly underbrush of military cliches and meaningless minutiae.

Which is a shame, given that Merrifield's status as a Gulf War vet has afforded him a firsthand perspective on such well-worn themes as behind-the-battle-lines hijinks, the military's bureaucratic hierarchy and that obligatory staple of all war plays, romance in the ranks. But rather than transform his personal war stories into a broader, more entertaining commentary, Merrifield, who also plays the lead character of Specialist Mike Roberts, instead belabors episodes that have little meaning to anyone who didn't actually experience them. And though Merrifield has done his best to render an accurate portrait of military life, the fledgling playwright's abundant use of profanity, if understandable, is rarely illuminating. For instance, we don't get much insight into a soldier's life when a typical conversation consists of a swaggering private informing his tentmates that Saddam Hussein is a "butt-munch" and a "masturbator." And if these hard-bitten characters are going to spew their scatology over the airwaves, shouldn't they at least be supplied with a vocabulary more imaginative than the seven dirty words made famous twenty-odd years ago by George Carlin?

To their credit, Shaw's actors do their best to replicate the mannerisms of a group of bored G.I.s charged with digging a proverbial hole in the sand at the behest of a bellowing, vindictive jarhead, Sergeant John Finch, vigorously portrayed by Charles B. Wingerter. The ensemble effectively captures the spirit of a tight-knit squad of battle-tested veterans capable of engaging in incendiary debate one moment and genuine affection the next. In particular, Brian Landis Folkins is convincing as Specialist Dave Grimm, an ill-fated, hot-tempered soldier who becomes romantically involved with the play's lone female character, Private Lisa Brown, touchingly portrayed by Andrea Snell. And Augie Truhn's comic turn as the stuttering, bumbling Private Rich Ladd injects the production with some much-needed believable humor.

To be sure, the premise of Merrifield's play is intriguing. After all, isn't it likely that a few infamous episodes occurred during the war that prompted Bill Clinton to become such a strong advocate of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy? Come to think of it, weren't there a few incidents involving the Iraqi army's harsh treatment of Kuwaiti women that Merrifield might have cleverly juxtaposed with how the U.S. military treats issues of sexual harassment and rape? And wouldn't such films as Good Morning, Vietnam have served as a useful blueprint to Merrifield when it came to depicting the antics of the military's unsung disc jockeys?

Be that as it may, the playwright will no doubt improve his skills after having experienced a production of his work before a live audience. Indeed, as Merrifield's character Roberts says at play's end, "It's what we do when this is all over that matters--how we face the real world."

Sounds like the perfect place to start a play.


Desert Air, through June 14 at the Changing Scene, 1527 1/2 Champa Street, 893-5775.

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Jim Lillie