Humor on the terrace from old soldiers
Three Heroes are on stage at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre: The dreamer with his head in the clouds. The practical one, who points out the dreamer’s flaws but can’t see over the rut he’s dug himself. The compassionate one, who wants to make everyone happy but can’t.
It’s a great plot hook and a way into the lives and minds of Gustave (Richard Halverson), Henri (Robert Spencer) and Philippe (Daniel Mooney). The play is about its tragic-comic heroes, not their quest.
Henri’s bum leg has made him a 25-year veteran of the hospital. Philippe’s been crippled by “episodes” since the end of the war; shrapnel in his brain knocks him out cold regularly. Gustave has been there for six months, during which he’s developed a debilitating case of agoraphobia. And then there’s the faithful dog, actually a 200-pound statue loved by Gustav, feared by Philippe and mocked by Henri.
Spencer, Mooney and Halverson flesh out their characters with details lesser actors might omit. Spencer’s Henri is the voice of reason, and he makes the most of the role, lashing out sarcasm with the tonal quality of a good eye roll. Halverson, too, has his share of dry witticisms, but as Gustave begins to get lost in his illusions, it’s Halverson’s magnificent outrage at slights real and imagined that’s most appealing.
Mooney’s development is the most disconcerting and powerful. Philippe is initially as sharp and coarse as the rest of the group, but by the end he’s developed an always-pained expression, a habit of wincing and the look of a man for whom it’s an actual effort to hold himself together.
The three (or four, depending on whether you count the stone dog) veterans find in one another the strength to supersede their shortcomings, although their methods are suspect. They push and pull each other like small boys playing the “I’m not touching you” game, or perhaps teenagers playing chicken on railroad tracks.
In short, the veterans act like the World War I versions of themselves: young, occasionally immature, boasting of the women they’d love to have (often raunchily) and alarmingly assured of their own importance.
This youth-in-age drives most of the play’s humor. Dozens of one-liners play on the inherent irony, and the escape plot hinges on the trio’s inability to acknowledge their physical and mental weaknesses. Stoppard exploits this flaw to hilarious effect, including a scene where Gustave practices carrying Philippe across an imaginary river, with the expected result.
And yet, an undercurrent of tragedy runs through Heroes, cultivated masterfully by director C. Michael Wright. On the very few occasions that it comes to the fore, this current is devastating. But mostly, it serves as a counter-melody that does not overpower the play’s main theme.
This counter-melody expresses grief-in-age and complements humor with pathos. Philippe’s episodes are funny, but their increasing frequency becomes cause for concern. Gustave’s agoraphobia is a joke until he fake-meets Henri as practice and collapses into a gibbering ball of terror. And Henri is perhaps the most tragic of all, hiding an unimaginable boredom with life behind fake enthusiasm.
Heroes doesn’t leave you sad, though. That’s too simple. The play’s resolution leaves you content with the trio’s delusions. Maybe it’s not a happy ending, but it’s a comfortable one.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Heroes runs through Dec. 18 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets range from $31 to $36, and can be purchased at MCT’s online box office.