For decades audiences have been revisiting the pain of America’s participation in the Vietnam War, and the fraught return home by many of its veterans. From David Rabe’s three play trilogy, including “Streamers,” and “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,” to the docudramas “A Piece of My Heart,” and “Tracers,” to the current touring favorite “Miss Saigon,” writers have examined how the soldiers who fought in one of the country’s most horrific and unpopular wars have transitioned back to civilian life.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s current offering “Strange Snow,” by Stephan Metcalfe, is another entry in that category. Set in 1979, it is a tightly focused story centered on two former Army buddies, Megs and Davey, who are both having trouble coming to terms with the violence they witnessed in Vietnam and friends they lost. Megs has turned his focus and anger outwards, vacillating between a guy with a violent temper and a gregarious extrovert who is looking for a friend to validate his pain. Davey, on the other hand, has retreated inwards, refusing to speak about his experiences in the war and self-medicating with large amounts of alcohol. But in addition to the vets’ story, Davey’s sister Martha is also in the mix. She too is at a crossroads, looking for a life beyond her dreary present, as a lonely middle-aged “virgin school marm” who splits her time caring for her damaged, barely functioning brother, and teaching high school biology to disinterested students.
Directed by Chamber Theatre Artistic Director C. Michael Wright, “Strange Snow” is a funny and fast moving show that includes quite a few standard plot devices — in lesser hands the play’s slight scaffolding might collapse. But terrific performances from the entire cast buoy the production — one that is ultimately more about the little victories of three emotionally wounded individuals who choose to persevere — than a specific journey through PTSD.
The story is set in motion by a pitch-perfect Ken T. Williams as Joseph “Megs” Megessey. Like a walking bear hug, the bearded and pony-tailed Megs descends on the Flanagan household on the opening day of fishing season with a pocket full of night crawlers an overly optimistic plan to catch a mess of rainbow trout. After convincing a golf-club wielding Martha (Krystal Drake) that he hasn’t come to rob them, Megs makes himself at home in his buddy’s house, occasionally yelling up the stairs to urge “Sweet Bear” Davey out of bed, though it’s only 4 a.m.
Where Williams talks non-stop of possibilities and plans, reveling in the opportunity to reconnect with one of his former comrades, Davey wants none of it; not the connection with the past, not the shared loss, not the whirlwind of possibility. Played by an understated Marques Causey, Davey carries a crippling, numbing fatigue, survivor’s guilt, and a perpetual sleep deprived hangover through his days as a truck driver. Once a promising high school athlete with dreams of college and business success, Causey can now barely focus on a conversation long enough to dismiss it as either pointless or too difficult.
Davey’s resignation to a dull life of escapism and little responsibility is really starting to wear on his somewhat uptight sister Martha. The aggressively plain homebody who is trapped in her parents’ house, mothering her ungrateful brother, is ready to move on. Her modest goals include more independence and pursuing her own simple dream of dating a man who wants to listen to her opinion and doesn’t mind that she doesn’t look exactly like women in fashion magazines. This “Marian the librarian” character seems out of place in a contemporary story, but in 1979 when tabloid pages were dominated by images of Farah Fawcett and “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby” cigarette ads, the continued societal pressure to marry and the relatively closed job options for women, it’s not implausible.
What is a bit implausible is that the gorgeous and dynamic actress Krystal Drake could ever be labelled as plain, let alone such an ugly duckling that her brother had to threaten his friends with physical violence to get one of them to ask Martha to the prom. Perhaps it says something about the power of advertisers and popular culture that even a beautiful woman can be made to feel fundamentally inadequate. Or perhaps this was an experiment in casting against type. Either way, the consistent references to Martha as homely don’t ring true, and Drake spends a bit too much time stuttering out her lines to convey her shyness and discomfort with a world that she believes has rejected her. Nevertheless, Drake’s determination to be noticed by Megs, to confront Davey about his irresponsible behavior and become someone who takes personal risks is enormously watchable.
Scenic Designer Keith Pitts’s realistic set is a mishmash or ’70s and ’80s furniture, family photos, flowery wallpaper and kitchen appliances. (Kudos to Meghan Savagian for finding a working coffee percolator, a Tang pitcher and the exact bowl of carved wooden fruit that sat decoratively in my grandmother’s living room during that era.) Wright uses every bit of the stage naturally, and to great effect as these three characters face off, regroup, and ultimately come together.