Revisiting Viet Nam is not pleasant for those of us it directly affected. Friends and classmates killed. Innocents slaughtered. Wild profits for Dow Chemical. PTSD and Agent Orange for the survivors. Loss in every sense of the word.
Eisenhower warned about the Military Industrial Complex but no one listened. Martin Luther King railed against the war. Protesters marched, sat in, and stood up against the killing. Presidents turned a deaf ear. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon chatted over coffee about the numbers of soldiers they considered expendable that week.
Defense secretary Robert McNamara issued an apology of sorts a couple of years ago, saying he “had been wrong about Viet Nam,” too late for sixty thousand dead Americans and incalculable dead Vietnamese. So here we are again because of an unlikely play by Livian Yeh.
MEMORIAL (@ Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through Oct. 23rd) is Yeh’s play about Maya Lin, the young architectural student whose plans were chosen in 1981 for a memorial to the soldiers lost in Viet Nam. I remember being elated that the winner was only twenty-one, a woman and Asian-American, to boot. The women’s movement was losing momentum so this was a coup.
Unfortunately not everyone thought so. We learn from Yeh’s play that Lin faced opposition at every turn. Congress blocked construction. The military balked at the lack of statuary in her sleek, minimalist design. Even her mother gave her a hard time. Yeh’s script concentrates on these obstacles in expository vignettes where a composite character stands in for and represents a whole institution, like the tightly wound colonel (John Kool) who speaks for the military and the kindly architect (Dale J. Young) who speaks for the selection committee.
I wish the playwright had made us privy to Lin’s inner life. By straining the mother/daughter relationship, Yeh forfeits the opportunity to show us what Lin (Amy Ward) really feels. Just like the colonel, the mother is reduced to a stereotype, cemented with a lengthy tea ceremony. There goes the chance for Lin to confide in someone. It’s a pity we don’t see her other life, apart from this defining, and dramatically limiting, event. Still, this is a developmental script, which may change as it has more productions.
Kudos to director Kelly Galvin and sound designer Oliver Seagle for the omnipresent stonecutter soundscape: The echo of marble yielding under the pressure of a chisel is expressly haunting and evocative of Lin’s struggle to see her vision manifested.