American Soldiers is the story of Angela "Angie" (Samantha Lee York) - a veteran who is returning home to Long Island after a traumatic tour of duty in Iraq. She tries to keep a low profile, but is greeted in turn by her hard-drinking Vietnam veteran father Carlo Sr. (Kaylen Ivory), her clean-cut politician brother Junior (Allen Wiseman), her party girl sister Marie (Kadijah Perkins), and her wild and wooly boyfriend Hutch (Garett Harris - and I'm quite literal about the wooly... this actor has some hair on him!) - all of whom have ideas about how her life after war should look. The play follows Angie as she attempts to deal - or not deal - with the world to which she has come home.
This is a play with a lot of ideas about politics, religion, and the process of returning from war, but it is clearly written with its main interest in the day-to-day family conflicts that are much more important and personal to most people than are the big ideas. It's not a brilliantly written play, but it's not bad either. The script seems to do a reasonably good job of balancing the real human issues with the lofty ideology, but this production chooses to tip the scales firmly in the direction of ideology. Director Katherine Skoretz highlights the arguments as if they were political debates - making the heavy-handed decision of literally placing characters at podiums and on soapboxes, rather than in any sort of relationship with each other. It's an idea that might have worked had it been done with a degree of subtlety, but Skoretz strips the characters of their connections to one another, preferring that they speak to the audience instead of each other, which keeps the audience from forming an emotional connection with the family. In an already preachy play, Skoretz magnifies the rhetoric and ends up presenting a series of rants and lectures instead of a cohesive story. And the final moment of the play, which follows up an unearned emotional barrage with the cast individually shaking hands with and thanking each audience member for their attendance in place of a curtain call, is a little intrusive and a lot self-indulgent. The sad fact is, this is a play that asked for a straightforward, emotionally truthful exploration of some tough ideas, and instead got a faux-deep, overly-stylized treatment that does little to illuminate or humanize the script.
The undergraduate actors charged with bringing this play to life do some okay work in a difficult production, though most of them find one note and stick with it through the majority of the performance. They come out of the gates yelling, and don't really have anywhere to go from there. Samantha Lee York is overly strident as Angie the new vet who is unable to deal with the ugly hypocrisy that she sees all around her. She has some good moments of warmth with Perkins and Harris, but is usually just angry. Kaylen Ivory as the damaged patriarch shuffles through the play without much energy, but he does have some moments of depth that hint at deeper potential, and it's never easy to play a role so much older than one's self. Allen Wiseman is a little stiff as Carlo, Jr., and suffers too from the overall problem of too much yelling. Kadijah Perkins has some real charm floating under the surface in her turn as little sis Marie, but it is never able to develop without opportunities to connect with her family members. Garett Harris's performance as the free spirit Hutch is a standout - broadly comic and charming. And though the character is - like his castmates - one note, it's a note that is mostly a lot of fun.
The heavy-handed scenic design by Beth Ottosen beats us over the head with patriotic zeal. And though it really would have served the play better if it were not quite so over-the-top, the large American flag against the upstage wall that provides the centerpiece of the set is artfully and attractively arranged. The trash around the stage gives an overly dilapidated feeling that never quite makes sense - especially since it remains on stage even after Carlo, Sr. finally decides to tidy up. Marky Sharrow's costume design is generally fine, though I take issue with Angie's tiny camo sleep shorts - something tells me they're not exactly standard issue. Tyler Ezell's lighting design is a little overdone at times, but I did enjoy his sound design. The combination of news coverage and pro-American music plays well with the themes of the play.
At the end of the day, American Soldiers is an earnest, albeit misguided effort at dealing with some complex and worthy issues that might have been worlds more successful had it trusted the story and the characters, rather than feeling the need to impose a high concept that downplayed the importance of both. That said, the students are working hard up there, and I applaud their effort and sincerity. Go out and give them some support!
American Soldiers by Matt Morillo (Director: Katherine Skoretz; Carlo Sr: Kaylen Ivory; Angela: Samantha Lee York; Junior: Allen Wiseman; Marie: Kadijah Perkins; Hutch: Garett Harris) continues at Wayne State University's Studio Theatre through November 23. Tickets range from $10-$12. For more information, visit http://www.cfpca.wayne.edu/theatreanddance/.