BEACH, CA - What are we to make of a famous, influential man pulling
strings to keep his son out of a war?
That’s one of the questions we’ve been invited to ponder in
the voting booth this November. Is the practice despicable?
Absolutely. David Haig’s play My Boy Jack, in its American premiere staging at International City Theatre, invites us to ponder the opposite scenario: What are we to make of a famous, influential man pulling strings to make sure his son does go to war? We’re talking about a bright, beloved, not-yet sixteen-year-old who’s so nearsighted he can’t pass the army physical, but whose loving father happens to be the British Empire’s greatest apologist, writer Rudyard Kipling.
In the England of 1913 it is still possible for a respected intellectual to embrace concepts like “Empire and Extension” and “The White Man’s Burden.” Kipling not only embraces them, but fashions them into an altar on which he is willing to lay an entire generation of the Empire’s young men, not excluding his only son Jack. And though he anticipates neither the length of the “Great War” nor the extent of its horrors, Kipling isn’t deluded. He knows many of those young men will not come home. In his own romantic fictions of battle and adventure, colonial soldiers, however gloriously, nevertheless die. It is only in the bedtime stories Kipling tells his children that heroes are only “slightly wounded.”
Kipling is “terribly proud” of son Jack’s willingness to serve, of his being “so keen.” When some under-the-table fatherly string pulling secures the half-blind youngster a commission in the Irish Guard, Kipling envies the “clean, honorable task” that lies ahead of his son. Jack’s keenness, as he shares with sister Elsie, is little more than an adolescent fantasy of running away from home, on a par with the cigarettes the youngster stashes in a bookcase, and the whisky he filches from his parents’ liquor cabinet. Mother protests faintly, Elsie strongly, but off Jack goes to serve his country.
At this point Haig’s scenario shifts from the Kipling drawing room to the trenches of France. The battlefield’s clamor, pathos, and horror are beyond anyone’s expectations, almost beyond imagining. In ICT’s production they are powerfully depicted, and Act I ends with the audience literally stunned.
The second act opens with the inevitable telegram lying benignly on a silver salver back in the Kipling drawing room. Jack, we are informed, is missing in action. The senior Kipling gasps, weeps. But he doesn’t seem truly surprised. And he has his speeches all prepared. When, after a protracted search, Jack’s death is finally confirmed, Kipling is properly devastated. But he’s also proud--of his son’s sacrifice, and his own. Even the details of a particularly horrific death won’t keep Kipling from pronouncing it the “finest moment” of his young son’s life. His wife and daughter are more than devastated. They’re angry, resentful in a way only the powerless can be. There is shouting, sobbing, recrimination. But they all know this will pass. “We’ll manage,” the parents say to one another, their cheeks still wet with tears. “We’ll manage.”
And they do. The years pass. There is healing, happiness. And in the play’s final glimpses of the Kipling family, there is no more mention of Jack. His loss echoes only in the brief, dim flicker of a final scene, a final remark by the elderly
Kipling, seated beside his wife on the davenport while a radio news reader blankly reports the ascendancy of another German warmonger. The old man’s words are terse and bitter. It’s clear that things are not so clear to him anymore.
Playwright Haig’s script is well-conceived, compact, quietly devastating. Under the direction of Shashin Desai it has been powerfully realized at Long Beach’s
ICT. From the handsome scenery of designer Don Llewellyn, to the visceral battle effects of sound and lighting designer Bill Georges, to Kim DeShazo’s period costumes—charmingly understated, with a just-right “old money” feel (except for Elsie’s spectacular wedding gown!)--we are in the hands of masters, and their work is simply fine.
Seven actors make up a superb ensemble. Randy Kovitz’s Rudyard is stalwart and eloquent, utterly believable as a gifted man only dimly aware that his firm foundation has begun to crumble.
As Carrie Kipling, wife and mother, Gillian Doyle has a brilliantly written role and clearly knows it. She waits patiently for her moments, then nails them. Carrie’s desperate sublimations—railing about tourists in the garden as her son is being packed off to war, and later, searching excitedly for a lost boy everyone knows is dead—are never histrionic, just heartbreaking.
Travis Vaden is perfectly cast as Jack. Believable as a fifteen-year-old, admirable as an eighteen-year-old, and resonating powerfully—unseen-- through the second act, Vaden‘s Jack is everyone’s son, everyone’s brother.
Elsie Kipling is a bit of a device, voicing too precisely a modern sensibility. But the author needs her, and so, I think, does the audience. In Erin Cummings’ hands, Elsie is forceful without being strident, and her radiance on Elsie’s wedding day is surprisingly uplifting. Elsie is not just a mouthpiece. She is life and hope.
Special mention must be made of Brett Elliott’s performance as Guardsman
Bowe. In two wrenching sequences Elliott is literally overwhelming as a man falling apart before our eyes. From his first shivers of shellshock in the trenches, to the completion of utter human despair in the Kipling drawing room, Guardsman Bowe‘s descent is as painful and powerful as anything I have experienced in a theatre.
Congratulations to Shashin Desai and ICT. My Boy Jack stimulates, provokes, delights, shatters, and uplifts as only theatre can, yet all too rarely does.
At the play’s final blackout, somebody—writer, director, sound designer—couldn’t resist adding one final battlefield sound effect. It is the eerie throb of a low-flying helicopter--just in case there were any doubt that My Boy Jack is about the here and now. So going to war for the wrong reasons, whitewashing disastrous choices, propping up old men’s pride with the corpses of the young—such things have been around for awhile. And sad to say, bad history has always made great theatre.
- G.R. White
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