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Theatre Review: One Red Flower: Inspired by Letters From Vietnam Vets

Editor-at-Large

One Red Flower, produced and created by Emmy-award winning director Paris Barclay, was presented as a staged reading at the Brentwood Theatre last weekend only as a special benefit supporting New Directions and Rubicon Theatre’s Innovation Fund.

 A musical play adapted for the stage from the book, Dear America:  Letters Home From Vietnam, the production was skillfully directed by Ken Sawyer in a evening that had the audience smiling with a lump in its throat.  One Red Flower is an intense peek into the lives of six young soldiers in a unit under the leadership of First Lieutenant Kenny Rutherford played by a most talented Dwayne Barnes (C.S.I., E.R., Without a Trace).  Most of the action takes place from April 15 1969 to April 13, 1970 as this young band of soldiers prepare to be shipped back home.   

The original upbeat music and lyrics written by Barclay took on the feel of a rock opera much in the same genre as The Who’s Tommy.  The score captures the pure essence of the poetry of the source material and perfectly underscores the prose portion of the script as well.  The exceptionally talented ensemble, with the backing of the outstanding music director and arranger David O, performed masterfully and could very easily have been standing on a Broadway stage, a familiar arena for several cast members including Drew Tyler Bell (Mike) who appeared in the Broadway production of Spring Awakening and David Burnham (Marion) who just completed a stint in Wicked and was in the original cast of The Light in the Piazza.

 Maureen McGovern gave a heart-wrenching performance as Eleanor Bridges in her letter exchanges with her son Billy played with great innocence by Josh Henderson, (Desperate Housewives) who was killed just a week before he was scheduled to be shipped home.    Whether spoken as prose, sung as a solo, or part of this sterling ensemble, McGovern’s musical performance was outstanding. Her rendition of (There Will Still Be) Christmas and Time Heals, as well as the song in the epilogue set in 1984 at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., where upon seeing her son’s name she says:  “Next to the name on this black wall is your mother’s heart,” are executed with deep emotion giving insight into what it must mean to lose a child to war.

A number of the songs, with music ranging from blues, to rock to country, include I Don’t Understand This War, Mud & Blood & Water, The Kid Is Coming Home and the very compassionate Mrs. Rutherford which is sung to the mother of First Lieutenant Kenny Rutherford after he is killed. With such lines as “I do what I gotta’ do to get through the mud and water” or “It’s harder than you think,” the ensemble created an upside down world that shattered most of audience’s traditional beliefs.  The toll of this war hits home when the young soldiers writes: “I’ve aged…I’m not happy-go-lucky anymore,” or “I often wonder if what we’re fighting for is worth a human life,” or when Private First Class Alan Chisholm, tenderly played by Hunter Parrish, (Weeds) writes his wife telling her that “we might never see each other again and that you should consider marrying someone else.”  Eventually, he is captured by the VC and commits suicide after his release. The rest of this outstanding cast included Levi Kreis, (The Apprentice, Days of Our Lives) who offered some comic relief as the delightful redneck sergeant George McDuffy.

The title song One Red Flower is a song of hope about a single flower growing in the middle of the jungle, in sharp contrast to the ugliness of war and perhaps a symbolic reminder by the most gifted Paris Barclay who notes that, “Tonight, listen to these voices from the past – embrace them, and know that they represent the best in us, even when battered and bruised by the reckless choices other people may have made.”  And, the beat goes on…

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