2nd Avenue South Players
At Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School
Through May 23

Toward the end of their careers, Senators Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond would occasionally boastin only mild exaggerationthat they’d amassed “over 200 years of legislative experience” between them. John Murphy, David Ring and Jordan Smith may not top that number when it comes to their combined time in regional theater, but with careers now measured in decades they’re clearly three of the area’s most valued and distinguished names in acting.

So it’s easy to envy director Al Singer, who’s assembled something of a dream team for Heroes, the latest offering from his 2nd Avenue South company, which focuses on works by Jewish playwrights or reflecting on the Jewish experience. Still, some recalibration of expectations might be in order before approaching this particular work. Why? Because by now playwright Tom Stoppard’s reputation precedes him, on the international stage as well as locally, as a writer known for intellectual extravagance and aesthetic heavy lifting in memorable, regionally produced works including Travesties, Largo Desolato, Arcadia, Hapgood and the classic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

With such names as the quintet listed above to conjure by, expectations of theatrical fireworks are clearly not inappropriate. But actually, that is the biggest problem this production is likely to face. Stoppard’s 2005 adaptation of French playwright Gérald Sibleyras’ Les Vents des Peupliers (The Wind in the Poplars) is much more of an intimate, chamber piece than the larger, more flamboyant works he’s best known for around here. A musical metaphor seems appropriate: On the basis of what they’ve already experienced of Stoppard, viewers led to expect the theatrical equivalent of Eric Satie’s chaotic, over-arching orchestral work Parade will find themselves at a recital of his famous Gymnopédies for solo piano instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. For Stoppard’s adaptation, ultimately, takes on an austere beautyand a reserveakin to Satie’s solo meditations. But given the amount of comedy present, that shouldn’t give the wrong impression, either. In Sibleyras’ world, it’s 1959, and three military pensioners, veterans of the Great War, are serving out the end of their lives in a home for old soldiers in the countryside of France. Henri, Gustave and Philippe have assumed command of the back terrace. Their only companion? A heavy stone statue of a dog, which is moved from place to place between each scene.

But desperate measures are called for when the three learn their bivouac is about to be overrun by intruders when the front terrace closes for repairs. Their vividly sketched plans to fortify and defend their position fade when they’re inconveniently reminded they have no munitions to speak of.

The only other option? Retreat, to a hill with wind-blown poplars several kilometers away.

It’s the great escapea gently put metaphor itself for three men slowly running out of options toward the end of their lives. Murphy’s irascible Gustave, a grouch with a touch of the poet, seems at first the most gregarious, the most ambitious of the group. Ring, as Philippe, is the peacemaker, who looks for common ground no matter how improbable or precarious. Smith gives Henri the air of a man still about town and not yet fully prepared to relinquish the field.

Their curmudgeonly arguments and contentions with one other are ultimately as absurd as their collected worldly wisdom aboutwhat else?women. But the stubbornly recurring flares of old campaigns, passions and curiosities show how much life remains among this squabbling set.

Heroes may be no theatrical bonfire. But the gentle flames from the high-banked bed of coals in this production still leave us warmed against nightsand subject matterthat give us all a chill.