Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
February 26, 2009
Johnny Got His Gun, originally written in 1939 by Dalton Trumbo, is the story of a soldier returned from World War I with neither arms nor legs, who is also blind, deaf, and dumb. Seemingly not a lot to go on for a theatrical performance, but the eminently capable folks of the Sleepless Theater Company are presenting a solid and wonderfully realized production as part of this year's FRIGID Festival. This show is a highlight for any theatergoer.
Joe Bonham is one of countless young soldiers who go off to war thinking "lots of guys come back." At the top of this show, he recounts the patriotic and energetic send-off the troops received, introducing us to the important people in his life who are left behind. These memories seem to be floating across Joe's consciousness in an effort to make him whole, as in a dreadful example of careful what you wish for, Joe has come back alive but in a condition that defied all expectations including his own. As he comes together as a person, Joe begins to cope with the awareness that the person still present has no way of existing in connection with the world at large. Joe builds his way back, first for himself and then communicating with others. It is a remarkable journey combining the stories that make up a person's life with an exploration of how the mind exists within time.
The language of this piece is of its time, and in a less skilled production listening to it could have been an agony of its own, but the adaptation is strong and judicious. Actor Ricardo Pérez-Gonzalez so owns these words that he manages to be both of the period and, through his connection to text, transition across that time to a timeless truth. He never wallows in imagery but with dynamic pacing keeps us with him in the text. Whether it is the sight of a body suspended on wire or the weight of a medal almost sinking through his chest, Joe's words and presence keep on with an urgency that swept me along with it. The piece is set in such a way that the actor's body underscores everything in a deliberate yet delicate physicalization, moving with precision but not stylized and solidly, realistically underscoring the emotional journey. It is perfect within the basement setting of Under St. Marks, using the features of the space and the space then becoming almost a metaphorical bunker in which Joe mind is removed from the world. Simply set with only a chair that shifts from being a frame for the body Joe no longer has to a rack for his agony to simply a tangible connection for him within his dark world, Johnny Got His Gun is smartly realized by director Gerritt Turner.
Additionally, one of the beauties of the show is that it is so very audience-ready. The production has been mounted elsewhere and so the audience here will receive the benefit of a production that has its relationship to audience in place, an actor who is deeply knowledgeably both of the text and of his performance. There is a lot of talent here and the wonderful opportunity to see all elements working together, well-rehearsed and ready to happen here and now. This Johnny Got His Gun is good to go and should be seen.