nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 8, 2007
Remember Wolfgang Peterson's 1982 film, Das Boot, about a German U-boat crew that gets stranded on the bottom of the ocean in their sunken submarine? If so, then you'll be able to imagine the kind of claustrophobic intensity generated by Burgess Clark's new play, Purple Hearts. Inspired by actual events, this gripping World War II drama speculates on the fate of three U.S. sailors trapped in a bulkhead on the U.S.S. West Virginia, a battleship that was attacked and sunk at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Purple Hearts gets a surprising amount of mileage out of this scenario thanks to some sharp writing, and an all-around rock solid production by Invisible City Theatre Company.
The three sailors in question are Whitman, the skittish senior officer; Lewis, an all-American Seabee; and the taciturn and tough-talking Spooner. Not knowing if a boiler exploded or if the ship was attacked, these three men bang on pipes, hoping to draw the attention of the divers they pray are coming to rescue them, survive on canned peaches (the only food they have), and ration their air (which means keeping tabs on how much they talk and how many cigarettes they smoke). Tensions run high between the sailors as the waiting turns from hours into days, and they begin to wonder if anybody is coming for them at all.
Purple Hearts juxtaposes their struggles with those of their loved ones, who sit at home waiting for any word about the missing men. Time stands still for Lewis's no-nonsense mother, Ethel, Whitman's fragile wife, Joanne, and Spooner's sassy girlfriend, Cassie, as they ponder the fate of the sailors and grapple with how long to keep hope alive before facing the need to move on.
Clark puts his trio of protagonists through their emotional paces as they each go through the five stages of grief. Their moods are not enhanced by the sheer physical discomfort of the situation: a diminishing air supply, the rapidly dropping temperature (they are underwater, after all), and the close quarters. Before long all three men have to deal with a host of unexpected challenges including heightened sexual arousal and insanity. If you're not up on your U.S. military history, the conclusion of Purple Hearts will indeed be surprising.
The women get their fair share of upheaval, as well, as they deal with depression, bitterness, and new suitors looming on the horizon. Clark cuts down on the potential sensationalism of the proceedings and humanizes the whole thing by showing us how much their uncertainty costs these women.
Director David Epstein keeps the world of the play closely confined, making not only the sailors squirm but the audience too. These guys are almost always right on top of each other, which make confrontations frequent and easy. His integration of the women, as dreamlike apparitions who appear to (and sometimes unknowingly interact with) the men is smooth and convincing.
Dan Patrick Brady, Ryan Serhant, and Kevin T. Collins all do fine work as the sailors, exhaustively detailing both their mental and physical collapses. All three are given many individual moments to shine, and they each make the most of them. Cecilia Frontero, Anneka Fagundes, and Rebecca White are equally good as the women left behind. All six actors (and the production, in general) are enhanced by Joe W. Novak's moody lighting design.
Purple Hearts sheds new light on one of the many forgotten chapters of World War II history. If you like your drama intense and your situations dire, this very well done production will be right up your alley.