Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue

Burning Coal Theatre
Through Jan. 20

Though my father died in 1978, it usually feels more accurate to say that he did not, in fact, survive the Korean War.

After serving in the Navy, he came back home to our small tobacco town in central North Carolina. There, the hostilities continued. Over the years that followed, they gradually intensified, during my childhood and adolescence, until the hour of his death. Though we both found ourselves repeatedly in harm’s way as a result, my mother and I survived: veterans, in our own right, of the never-ending conflict my father brought back with him.

When a playwright writes about soldiers and families, I try to pay attention. I look and listen for insights that speak to the parts of my father’s experiences that he was never able to articulate during his life.

That, however, proves more of a challenge than it really needs to be in what is largely an unfortunate production of Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue on Burning Coal’s second stage.

Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama; Elliot itself was a runner-up for the award in 2007. Given this production, it’s hard to say why. Director-producer Joshua Benjamin and his quartet of actors lay bare the shortcomings of Hudes’ text without solving most of its problems.

In all fairness, this script, which is far more poetic than it is functionally theatrical, would challenge many directors. Its fragmentary, episodic scenes leave gaping holes in the plot and the present situation of its central characters. Elliot’s disjunctive monologues speak almost entirely to the wartime experiences of three generations of men in a Puerto Rican family in West Philadelphia. But when we’re stateside, it’s significant that Hudes keeps us mostly away from their home. Instead, we tarry in dilatory scenes where the title character is being honoredaloneat the ballpark, or in television and radio studios where he’s asked dead-end questions about his service. When at home, we’re in one character’s room or reverie.

Apparently, this family isn’t much for togetherness; we ultimately see next to nothing of their interactions in present tense. One notable exception occurs when Elliot’s mom dresses his wound in her backyard garden, a fantastical construct we hear (but never see in this disappointingly minimal staging), whose lush foliage is said to resemble her native Puerto Rico.

Gradually, as the play veers between the 1950s, the 1970s and today, we piece together parts of the story. Elliot is home on leave after sustaining a serious leg wound in the Iraq War. He has the option of returning to his platoon and must decide whether he will do so within the week.

In music, a fugue involves a similar or identical melody, voiced at different times by different instruments in the same piece. And indeed, Hudes invokes a metaphysical fugue of sorts here. Before Elliot can decide on returning, he tells us he needs to hear his father’s stories from his service in Vietnam. In an earlier scene, we hear his father disclose the same need, to hear of his own father’s service in Korea.

Enough of the plot particulars repeat between generations to make the point: In a clan where war’s become the family business, history keeps repeating itselfin large part because the men don’t talk to one another.

Ramon Orlando Perez is fairly sharp as the title character, and Eric Morales gives a crisp enough read to his Vietnam veteran father. But under Benjamin’s direction, we question how Carly Prentis Jones’ Ginny could have survived a tour as a military nurse in Vietnam with so much of her heart on her sleeve. And, after a certain point, Raúl Granados’ stoical take on Elliot’s grandfather veers toward a monotone. The pacing in this show dragged early when so many speeches were riddled with an epidemic of significant pauses. The number and duration of changes between all those short scenes further dissipated any sense of momentum.

According to The New York Times, the original production was 70 minutes long. This production runs 95 minutes and feels even longer. By the time we leave Elliot, it seems like we’ve served our own tour of dutyone frustrated by a playwright who keeps too tight a grip on the information and insight we’re allowed into a dysfunctional family of soldiers.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Three times a soldier.”