"Last Boys" a haunting ride

I’ve had Fridays off all summer. I’m off today, too, actually, but I thought I’d break my seasonal silence to tell you about an experience I had last Friday that was worth “working” on my day off.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the equity-actor productions at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene, so when Bill Lelbach offered me a ticket to see the opening night of their current show, “Last of the Boys” (which he’s also directing), I jumped at it – even though it was on a Friday, and I’m generally averse to doing anything that requires me to think or act even semi-professionally on my day off.

But go to Greene I did. Am I happy I did? Well ... “happy” isn’t the word I’d use to describe my experience with “Last of the Boys.” In fact, by the time I was in my car on that long ride back to Norwich, I was pretty out of sorts.

Let me back up, and tell you what this one is about. “Last of the Boys,” written by Steven Dietz, tells the story of Ben (Bernard Sheredy) and Jeeter (Steven Patterson), two Vietnam vets who get together every year at Ben’s trailer in the middle of the California desert. The scene is a desolate backdrop for Ben’s equally vacant life – he enlisted because his father was once an aide to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (I don’t think I need to tell you how that turned out), and he’s been trying to rebuild his life ever since. Jeeter is less depressed, but no less screwed up. He teaches a college course on the 1960s and trades off his hippie vibe to pick up young coeds. Their ensuing “reunion” over the day or two of the play is filled with barbs, jabs and recriminations. Sure, there’s a laugh or two, but this is a friendship at once cemented and torn apart by a conflict that did the same thing to an entire nation.

So yeah, that’s what I meant by not being “happy” on the ride home. Unlike, say, a musical, there was no show-stopper running through my head on that ride. Instead, I thought a lot more about the similarities between what was happening then and what is happening now than I ever have before – and that’s a good thing. I can’t tell you that “Last of the Boys” is the feel-good play of the summer, because it’s not. It’s gritty, harsh and incendiary. And very, very real. Any stage production that gets you thinking about larger issues hours, even days after the curtain falls is a must-see in my book.

While Sheredy and Patterson do most of the heavy lifting here (Sheredy, in particular, has a scene which literally stops the show), they’re joined by a pair of equally talented actresses. Jeeter brings along his latest girlfriend, Salyer (Lija Fisher), who has her own haunting connection to her Vietnam-lost father, and her boisterous mom, Lorraine (Dori May Ganisin), whose drunken rants fuel the boys’ fire. Lesley Billingsley rounds out the cast as the ghostly Young Soldier, who torments Ben’s wounded psyche.

The themes of “Last of the Boys” have an all-too-relevant resonance in today’s world – buildup in troop surges, a conflict mired in political motivations, young heroes who will never come home. Ben and Jeeter’s stories are, unfortunately, just like those of thousands of Vietnam veterans whose lives were irrevocably altered by the events of four decades ago. I wish I could say it’s a hopeful, or inspiring tale, but it’s really not. What it is, is visceral, thought-provoking and important.

“Last of the Boys” is co-produced by Pete & Karen Raymond and Bonnie’s Restaurant. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30, plus Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., July 23 – Aug. 15 at Chenango River Theatre, 991 State Highway 12, Greene. Tickets are $18 Thursdays, $19 Fridays & Sundays, and $22 on Saturdays (vets get in for $14).

The 24 Hour Reservation Line accepts reservations at any time at 607 656-8499 (TIXX). For more information visit www.chenangorivertheatre.org.

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