The Ghosts of Vietnam Are back

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Sticks and Bones

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

I saw David Rabe’s play Sticks and Bones when it first opened in New York in 1972. Then, it was a scalding anti-war drama intended to harpoon the Vietnam War. It sizzled. It dripped with hatred for the war in Southeast Asia. I saw it again last weekend when it was revived in New York, at the Pershing Square Signature Theater. I was fearful that after 42 years the drama had lost its bite.

My eyes snapped open after the first ten minutes of the play. It is as riveting today as it was then because all of the anti-war sentiment in the play can be felt once again, but not against Vietnam. Oh, the play is about Vietnam, but you can see easily how all of its themes connect to our recent lost wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Everything that is said in the play about the “yellow” people in Southeast Asia can today be directed at the people of the Middle East. The family in Sticks and Bones, ripped apart by their son’s wounding in the jungle, is just like any family today. David, the veteran returning home, is just as crippled as those 19 years old today coming home without arms or legs. He, like they, wonders what they were fighting for.

Everything has changed, but nothing has changed.

Rabe’s play is a deep indictment of the unpopular Vietnam War and focuses on its effect on the family of Ozzie and Harriet (named after the characters in the TV sitcom of the 1950s). Their son David was blinded in Vietnam and has come home, a mess, with his ghost Vietnamese girlfriend, Zung. This deeply troubles his parents, but not his younger brother Rick, who, guitar in hand, sashays through the play paying no attention to anybody (the parents blame David’s blindness directly on his sexual relationship with the Vietnamese girl).

Ozzie and Harriet, painted as a typical middle aged, middle class couple by Rabe, collapse from their son’s condition. The family used to be perfect, and now it is ruined. How did this happen? At first, like all parents, they tell him they will all get over it and Harriet keeps telling her son, and the rest of her family, that there will come a point when their son sees again and things will be just like they were in the old days.

They will not.

The blinded son eviscerates his parents in withering dialogue, and, as time goes by, so does Ozzie. Big, hulking Ozzie was a great runner in high school, but fame fled long ago and now all he has is his wife and children. Now one son is blind and the other son ignores him. He is a wreck. Harriet, who bakes cakes and cookies when fear strikes her, is worse. There is a provocative moment in the play when she goes into scary physical convulsions over her son while she is vacuuming the living room. Rabe also lambasts a silly Catholic priest who visits the house to make all well.

Director Scott Elliott has done an outstanding job in the play. He not only keeps the action moving, and draws out all of the tangled emotions of his characters, but commandeers a play that is on two levels, with the action going back and forth between the living room and David’s bedroom upstairs. Elliott gets superb acting from Holy Hunter as Harriet, Bill Pullman as Ozzie, Ben Schnetzer as David, Raviv Ullman as Rick, and Richard Chamberlain as Father Donald. Others in the play are Nadia Gan as Zung, David’s ghost girlfriend, and Morocco Omari as an army sergeant major.

Sticks and Bones does have its problem, though. It is way too long. The performance I saw ran three hours. There are numerous repetitions of emotions in the second act and a good twenty minutes of it could be trimmed from the show. The play also moves too slowly in the first ten minutes or so. There is little in the play to suggest that the family is typical. We never hear from the outside world. Why couldn’t anti-war demonstrations, or jungle fighting, be shown on a large screen at some point. Rabe might also have added some new dialogue about the war. People over 40 know a lot about it, but younger people know little. To teenagers today, Vietnam might be the name of a heavy metal rock group.

The Afghan and Iraqi wars are not mentioned in the play, naturally, but you could lay those wars over a blueprint of Vietnam and they match up nicely. The terrible residue of those two wars, the dead and the maimed, reflects the Vietnam legacy and what happened to its soldiers

The history you see in the story is marvelous. This is a play that tells you a great deal about the emotions of the soldiers in the war and their families. It is only about one family and one soldier, but they represent all the families of soldiers who were killed or badly wounded. Older Americans can sit back, close their eyes and remember the war, and the war in the streets about it. Younger people who know little about it can discover an unhappy chapter in American history. The play has its flaws, but, overall, it is a strong revival of an intriguing work.

Rabe is a brilliant playwright and in Sticks and Bones he takes us back to Vietnam once again. American cannot escape slavery or Vietnam. There have been several plays about Vietnam in New York this year and there are more around the country. Miss Saigon tours endlessly. The war in Vietnam ended 39 years ago, yet it maintains its stranglehold grip on us all.

America is a great nation. America is a force for good in the world. But America never learns from its mistakes.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by The New Group. Sets: Derek McLane, Costumes: Susan Hilferty, Sound: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski. The play is directed by Scott Elliott. The play runs through December 16.

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