Its 1959 and Philippe, Gustave and Henri are cantankerous and cranky. They are World War I veterans who pass the time at a French soldiers home dreaming of making their escape, if not to Indochina then at least as far as the poplar trees on a distant hill in the award-winning HEROES, now playing at MetroStage Theatre.
Making its Washington area premiere, the Gerald Sibleyras play first debuted in Paris in 2003 as Le Vent des Peupliers (The Wind in the Poplars), where it received four Moliere nominations. The English-language adaptation by the gifted wordsmith Tom Stoppard went on to London and received the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2005.
It is Stoppards witty yet poignant translation that is brought to life as the three veterans pass their mundane days engaging in verbal sparring of long-forgotten military campaigns, grumblings about the staff and melancholy reflections on their lives.
Set entirely on an isolated terrace on the grounds of the home, the tender play is reminiscent of Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot.
Our trio of heroes are Henri, who is disabled by a wounded leg, Gustave, who suffers from agoraphobia, and Philippe, who passes out due to a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain. Their begrudging camaraderie becomes strained when Gustave conjures up a plan to escape the grounds of the hospital despite their combined physical and psychological limitations.
Comprising the tenderly beguiling cast are three of Washingtons most beloved actors, each of whom deliver a splendid and achingly funny performance.
Ralph Cosham is the newly-arrived Gustave, an eye-rolling cynic who amuses himself at the expense of his friends. Cosham, a long-standing company member of both Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre, combines a deceptively understated dry wit with the dignified presence of a still-proud soldier.
Michael Tolaydo plays Henri, who is more sheltered and the realist of the group, preferring to plan a nearby picnic rather than a sortie to Indochina as the means of escape from the hospital terrace. Tolaydo has appeared in two MetroStage productions: SeaMarks and Crummles Christmas Carol, and recently remounted and performed the one man show St. Marks Gospel in multiple locations. His Henri is eternally optimistic and touching in his admiration for a village schoolteacher he encounters on his daily walk.
John Dow is Philippe, prone to collapsing mid-sentence as a result of the lodged shrapnel and also a bit of a conspiracy theorist. He is convinced Sister Madeleine, the five-foot-tall nun who runs the hospital, is trying to kill him. Philippe is both funny and poignant as the fainting spells become more frequent. Dow, most recently seen in Is He Dead? at Olney Theatre, perfectly captures both sides of his character, delivering clever comedy with the subtle sadness of a man who realizes he is not all that he used to be.
Four-time Helen Hayes Award nominee John Vreeke returns to MetroStage to direct HEROES, following his impressive staging of the Canadian plays One Good Marriage and For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again. Set and lighting design is by Colin Bills, and Ivania Stack is the costume designer. Jessica Winfield is Stage Manager, Kevin Laughon is Production Manager and Brandon Guilliams is Technical Director.
The comedy in HEROES is a gentle humor, and Stoppards brilliant translation and MetroStage cast make for an impressive combination under the talented eye of Vreeke. In the course of the 90-minute play, the hopes and dreams of men nearing the end of their lives is at once both hilarious and achingly moving.
With three of the finest, funniest and most tender performances to be seen, HEROES touches the hearts of anyone who has ever witnessed the unwavering dignity of an aging veteran.
Theatre at its most powerful should make the audience think, laugh, feel, ponder and enjoy a story well told, said Carolyn Griffin, producing artistic director of MetroStage. HEROES does just that and experiencing it in the intimate setting of the MetroStage theatre creates a powerful yet poignant evening that lingers with hope long after the actors take their final bows.
HEROES is playing now through May 24 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal Street. For tickets or more information, call 703-548-9044 or visit www.MetroStage.org.