By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions limiting crowd sizes at public gatherings, local theatre companies have found themselves in a quandary. Unable to offer more than a few comedy and cabaret offerings, a fully-produced show has been out of the question due to the viability of paying for a cast and technical crew with a small, socially-distanced audience.
Douglas Taurel, a journeyman New York actor, proved to be just the ticket for the Jefferson Performing Arts Society this past November 5-8, as he presented his one-man show The American Soldier, a tribute to the sacrifice of servicemen throughout the American experience.
Based on actual letters written home and unearthed in his painstaking research, The American Soldier is Taurel’s attempt to honor the memories of those men whose dedication and service to the nation has ensured the blessings of liberty for those at home and protected many others living in far-away lands who were dependent on American military intervention.
An actor who has always been fascinated by history and the reverence attributed to soldiers both on and off the battlefield, Taurel began to research these letters at New York’s 48th Street Library. His one-man show chronicles the experience of every American conflict except the short-lived Spanish-American War and the Korean War, which he notes is often referred to as “the forgotten war.”
With a natural affinity for is selecting source material and with direction by Padraic Lillis, he composed and wove together short monologues separated by short musical interludes that identify each period of war. Told in a non-linear fashion, the work concentrates on the universal experience of being an American soldier and the hardships they often endure after they have returned home.
To the domestic battles waged against drug abuse and alcoholism, Taurel pulls no punches. He presents the stories of those affected by PTSD (post traumatic shock disorder) in a matter-of-fact fashion without casting aspersions or being critical of their mechanisms for coping.
On three occasions during the course of the work, one soldier relates what Taurel has determined are the three cornerstones in the universal story of American servicemen. They are Discipline, the ability to follow orders; Teamwork, the capacity to operate as part of a highly-trained unit; and Brotherhood, the camaraderie and bonding with fellow soldiers during a shared experience.
It is Taurel’s belief these three cornerstones constitute the foundation of every serviceman’s experience, no matter what epoch, conflict or even if he actually saw combat. (Although women have had an active role in every American war, they have only recently been allowed to participate officially in combat on the field. He had acknowledged his intent to incorporate a woman’s combat experience in a future mounting of this work.)
Taurel begins and ends the work by saluting the tattered and worn flag, which hangs down from the rear backdrop. By this simple act, he establishes the dedication each soldier gives to the nation as a measure of his patriotism.
He begins with the earliest conflict that shaped the country’s future as an independent nation, the Revolutionary War. After we hear the plaintive tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” he assumes the role of a hungry, freezing soldier at Valley Forge in 1777. Using the words lifted from the letter, Taurel expresses the soldier’s unwavering determination during a period when the nascent American experiment was at its most bleak period.
A guitar version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” signals a new character and a new conflict, the Viet Nam War. “It’s Been a Long Long Time” is the song of World War II that leads to the next description from the battlefield told by a Marine who has fought inch by bloody inch on the small Pacific atoll of Iwo Jima.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” finds Taurel writing by candlelight at a simple wooden desk. He reads the famous letter by Major Sullivan Ballou of the Army of the North to his wife Sarah in which he prophesies his impending death at the First Battle of Bull Run. Made famous in the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War,” the letter has been debunked by a number of historians as not haveing been penned in Ballou’s handwriting nor as typical of his other surviving less flowery and poetic letters to his wife.
Regardless as to its authenticity, it remains a literary masterpiece invoking a greater truth of a love between a man and a woman during the most turbulent and troubling of times.
As Taurel moves from one soliloquy to another, we hear the voices of those who are in the thick of battle and those who survive their loved one. Loss through suicide and the high cost to families from drug use and alcoholism are touched upon. He does not demean those so affected, but offers respect for those who suffer at the hands of depression and their family members who strive to support them.
Taurel reflects on the loss of a limb as a result of an improvised explosive device, a more sinister, modern weapon of war from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. The soldier complains that he can feel phantom pain emanating from the missing limb, his left arm.
The familiar music of “Over There” signals an examination of trench warfare fought in the Great War. A soldier calls out to his buddy for a smoke, making sure he’s not the third one on that match. According to World War I legend, snipers were able to target victims by focusing on the flames of longer duration, hence the phrase “Three on a match – suicide.” At the blast of a whistle, the soldiers rise and charge through the smoke and barbed wire of the battlefield. We hear the battle rage as our blood pulses and the sounds of exploding shells and gunfire surround us.
As the final scene ends and we see Taurel march off stage for the last time, there is time for the audience to reflect on the journey we have all taken together. These letters tell the story of men and women who have been affected by war, whether they have seen combat or not. The work enjoys major support through the lighting designs of Katy Alwell and Gabby Gowdie and their execution by local lighting designer Scott Sauber was noteworthy. The realistic sounds of war and the musical interludes by Andy Evan Cohen are also quite realistic and beautifully rendered with the simple, but effective set design of Lea Umberger.
Directed by Padraic Lillis and written and starring Douglas Taurel, The American Soldier runs 80 minutes with no intermission. It is now in its fifth year of presentations. For more information, go the website www.theamericansoldiersoloshow.com or write directly here.