Gustave, Henri and Philippe spent their lives on the streets of Paris, in homes around France and across the battlefields of Europe. In the Kitchen Theatre’s “Heroes,” boredom and grief motivate the characters to plan one final journey from the comfortable confinement of a home for retired veterans.
The play, which was written by Gérald Sibleyras and translated by Tom Stoppard, is set in France in 1959. The three, all World War I veterans, spend their postwar days on the home’s back terrace, each fretting about different circumstances. Henri (Arthur Bicknell) worries about overcrowding in the home. Philippe (Eric Brooks) fears that the nurse is killing off anyone with the same birthday. Gustave (Evan Thompson), the most recent arrival, who has only spent six months in the home, ignores mail from his family and befriends a stone dog statue.
Each man bears scars of war: for Henri, a bum leg; Philippe, a piece of shrapnel in his brain causing spells of unconsciousness; Gustave, an unexplained fear of the outside world and human interaction.
Their camaraderie is surprising for a group unwillingly united by the war. No family or friends visit the three vets, so the quartet — Gustave’s count includes the dog — pass their time together. They bicker, compare sexcapades from the old days, contemplate “offing” other residents, avoid memories of war and watch the far-off poplar trees.
They plan for a trip past the trees, a multiday excursion to see the world once more. The veterans steal blankets from their caretakers and begin to map out routes. There’s little action besides witty one-liners — especially those about Gustave “biffing” the nurse — but moments of understanding, like when they all learn of the death of Gustave’s sister, make their planning worth watching.
The three men come together as a likeable and believable ensemble, thanks to the intelligent and cohesive direction of Margarett Perry, the current resident director for the Kitchen Theatre. The only inconsistency is how the actors interpret age in the physicalities of their characters. The characters are all in their 80s, while the actors are likely in their 50s. Sometimes the actors convincingly portray an elder person’s trouble walking and standing, but at other times, they lean, jump up or bend over too easily.
Ithaca native and alumnus Arthur Bicknell ’73 is a standout in his first performance at the Kitchen Theatre. His relaxed stage presence calms the play’s more difficult moments, and his facial expressions incite the other characters to action. He is truly a treat to watch.
Sibleyras’ original script is in French, but Stoppard’s English translation unfortunately removes the elegance of the original language, and the actors speak their lines with no French accent. Except for occasional awkward French phrases, these men could belong to almost any post-World War II European country. The nostalgia and dreams Henri, Philippe and Gustave share do not seem particularly French or English, but their common traumas can belong only to Europe’s “Lost Generation,” looking toward a new decade with confusion.
Costume designer Lisa Boquist crafts the costumes to the era and characters’ backstories. The characters stay well-dressed despite the fact they rarely go out, clinging to the propriety of an era that is quickly fading into obscurity. They are all in dress shirts and pants, sometimes with a scarf or extra jacket. Thompson’s beautifully shaped desert-brown suit compliments his supposedly noble background.
Before the performance even begins, the audience knows “Heroes” will be a calm show for the Kitchen Theatre. The set, designed by Kent Lynn Goetz, is a quaint terrace, with tile-work and a gate closer to the seats than usual in the already small theater, bringing the audience closer to the characters and story. The pastel-colored back wall of the veterans’ home, decorated with plants and outdoor furniture, evokes a peaceful feeling. The large amount of space on the terrace opens up possibilities against the restriction of having only one setting.
After surviving the war, planning for this unlikely journey seems like an odd end for Sibleyras’ three vets. But, as the Kitchen Theatre’s production clearly shows, getting lost, whether in conversation with friends or on the road toward adventure, is the best way to find home.