Review: Heroes by Austin Playhouse
by Michael Meigs

A quiet word in your ear: do not expect too much of this gentle little three-character play. Don't over analyze it, and don't expect to the whip-smart verbal play typical of Tom Stoppard's own work. Author Gérard SIbleyras isn't loading symbolism onto his 2005 creation.

Three ageing French military officers in an old soldiers' home, in 1959. They meet daily, for hours, on a secluded terrace with a view of fields and, in the distance, a hill. The poplar trees move gently in a wind that never reaches them in their shared abode. They complain to one another, recount their very small adventures of the day, gossip about other ancient lodgers and grouse about high-handed treatment from Sister Madeleine, from Arles, who runs the establishment.

Gustave (Don Toner, left) prefers the closed circuit from his room to the terrace and back. Henri (Michael Stuart, right) with the gimpy leg has lived in this setting for 25 years but he is the most adventurous of the lot, taking constitutionals through the village that offer him the pleasure of watching promenading schoolgirls and the young woman who teaches them.

Philippe, the wound-up old geezer with a steel plate and a shrapnel wound to the head played by David Stahl (center), is at times explosive in temperament. But more and more often he is taken by brief, abrupt fainting fits, from which he always awakens crying, "Take them from behind!"  Philippe is mildly delusional -- he insists the terrace's stone statue of a dog will move from time to time, and he is convinced that l'Arlesienne manipulates the medicines at will, euthanizing selected old soldiers so that she will never have to celebrate more than one birthday on any given day.

There they sit, in the dimming winter of their lives, dependent on one another, cut off from their glories and their youth, gradually hatching out a scheme to escape. To Indo-China, suggests Philippe, but eventually in murmurs and quibbles they reduce their military objective to that of scaling the impossible height before them in order to picnic beneath those poplar trees. (The French title of the piece is "Le Vent des peupliers" -- "The Wind in the Poplars.")

And that is pretty much it. They do not escape. They do not find their territory invaded by other denizens of the home, even though announced repairs may send those others looking for new spots in the sunlight. They do not confront Sister Madeleine. Their conversation is the somnolent, nearly toothless indignation of old soldiers long forgotten, in a place and time with no anchor in the present.

These characters, living in that time in France, would carry enormous meaning for a French public today. Sibleyras, initially a radio scriptwriter and now a busy author for the theatre, was born in 1961, two years later than the setting for this play, but like the rest of the French public he will have absorbed these stereotypes. Old soldiers, valiant and yet useless, both during the wars and afterwards; a France that was twice defeated despite their heroism and yet survived. In 1959 France was seeing everything slip away again -- the war in Algeria was a disaster, beset by terrorism and soon to end with De Gaulle's summary decision to grant independence to that huge area, administered as a part of metropolitan France. The Indo-China escape existed only in Philippe's dreams, for the French military had suffered catastrophe at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French remain a passionately defensive-aggressive people -- a great culture that was humiliated in colonial and international politics.

When I first visited France in the 1970s, the seats nearest the doors in the underground Metro in Paris were still "réservée aux mutilés de guerre" -- "reserved for those mutilated in war."

The fact that Sibleyras can now mock those valiant geezers and the first half of France's twentieth century is a sign that, at last, his countrymen are beginning once again to feel at ease in their skins.

That distinctive background may explain in part the puzzlement of reviewers in Britain and in the United States. Even though Heroes was awarded the Olivier Award as best new comedy of 2006, rarely did it get much affection in the press. The Guardian called it "little more than a delicately acted piece of sentimental Gallic whimsy." The U.S. version with Len Cariou, Richard Benjamin and George Segal did worse. Variety's Bob Verini called it "glib and superficial without ever expanding; once we see where the characters are going (i.e.: nowhere), we're stuck there with them. " The L.A. Times published Charles McNulty's review of the same production under the snide title "No Medals for this Troupe of Heroes," including his dismissive comment, "It's tres, tres French in its mix of the philosophical and sentimental and in the way abstraction inevitably crowds out action."

To strike a similar chord of shared memory in the United States,a piece might well have to be written about a trio of ancient Hollywood stars in a retirement home -- say, Tom Mix, Gene Autry and Randolph Scott, just to pull names out of the air.

So wave aside all that and concentrate on the characters as portrayed under the direction of Lara Toner.  For example, Gustave, played by Don Toner, is the upright military hero who cannot face the public but has developed an affection for the stone dog on the terrace. I would have preferred a bit more military bearing in Gustave; what I was seeing much of the time was the familiar, affable master of ceremonies Don Toner putting on something of a scowl. Michael Stuart as the dreamy wanderer Henri has a simple schoolboy mischief to him. The most impressive transformation of the lot is David Stahl. We just saw him in Sylvia as a cheery 40ish urbanite. Here, with thick glasses, a cap pulled low to suggest a bald head, a convincing hunch to his shoulders and a shamble to his gait, and a verbal transformation, he easily passes as an irascible 80-year-old.


Once you accept that this trio is not going anywhere, because there is no longer anywhere to go, you can follow them with sympathy and good humor. Their quirks are understandable. As dogged survivors these soldiers show quite a different heroism by facing the tyranny of the everlasting succession of routine. Sibleyras gives them a gorgeous final metaphor as they stand side by side. They evoke the flocks of migrating geese far overhead, where periodically each member, in turn, moves to the front of the formation to lead and shield the others.


 Review by Joey Seiler on the Statesman's"Seeing Things" blog, February 24


Review by Elizabeth Cobbe in the Austin Chronicle, March 12


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by Gérard SIbleyras
Austin Playhouse

February 13 - March 15, 2009
Austin Playhouse
6001 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX, 78752