By Cynthia Darling
Jim Stowell is back for a United Solo Encore performance of “The Things They Carried,” his one‑man show based on Tim O’Brien’s book of the same name. The show opens with a straight‑to‑the‑heart scene in which Mr. Stowell, as O’Brien, tells the audience that he will sometimes look up, even now fifty years later, and see the young man he killed in Vietnam. Such a jump, right into the tragedy of this story, sets the pace and emotion of the show. Much like Vietnam itself, no preparation in the world can make one truly ready.
Mr. Stowell’s persona as O’Brien is honest. I believe everything he says as O’Brien because of the genuineness of his portrayal. He has a way of telling a story and letting us into everything he sees. We feel as if we are witnessing the action ourselves. He has a thousand‑mile stare that conjures up all of the horrors of war, from the personal to the larger political evils of a country gone wrong.
Mr. Stowell’s vocal mechanics are so varied; he explores a range of emotions in how forcefully he projects his voice, and in how he quiets down to a simmer. His portrayal of Elroy Berdahl, the heroic 81‑year‑old man who quietly allowed O’Brien to make the decision to go to Vietnam, drew pleasurable laughs and affectionate sighs from the audience.
In a scene in which O’Brien considers whether to run to Canada or go to Vietnam, Mr. Stowell is arresting in his depiction, through movement, of his racing thoughts, his panic, and then his gradual slowing down to face his fears. Mr. Stowell is a great American storyteller, capturing the grandiosity and fear of America. He is in touch with the zeitgeist of that moment in history, when so many men faced that same choice. In this way, Mr. Stowell gives testimony that might be lost with a less experienced actor. He covers broad swaths of time, then focuses in on quiet moments.
The lighting in the show is simple but effective. A red overhead light increases the tension of scenes in which Mr. Stowell confronts a difficult decision or a tragic situation.
Mr. Stowell’s depiction of O’Brien’s friend, the soldier Mitchell Sanders, stands out because of its great lyricism. Sanders’ down‑home, tell‑it‑like‑it‑is wiseacre mentality comes out naturally through Mr. Stowell’s voice. He proclaims, as Sanders, “You cannot change what cannot be changed.” And then, simply, but profoundly, when Sanders observes a strange truth of war: “There it is!” Sanders is a profanity‑laced, rapid‑fire philosopher of ‘Nam. Later in the show, Sanders implores O’Brien: “You’ve got to walk smart. Pull yer head out yer ass and wake the fuck up.”
In a flicker of an eye, Mr. Stowell transforms from the freewheeling Sanders into the slow, kind and earnest Kiowa, O’Brien’s best friend from the war. In a gently humorous scene, O’Brien and Kiowa eat the Christmas cookies sent by Kiowa’s father ‑ in February. Mr. Stowell sometimes evokes multiple characters in conversation, revealing his virtuosic character skills. These men from O’Brien’s book all live inside Mr. Stowell. They come into great three‑dimensional visibility as he makes them live and breathe onstage.
In the final scene, in which O’Brien visits the “shit field” that was the site of a horrible accident his clumsiness had caused, Mr. Stowell offers a powerful crescendo, evoking a sense of healing and eternal remembering of Vietnam. As he wades out into the mud of the river, he splashes and utters Mitchell Sanders’ “There it is,” and laughs like a madman. This final scene is so clear in Mr. Stowell’s narration, and in the way he looks and sees, that we see it with him. We know that his statement, “All that’s finished,” can never really be true about Vietnam. The audience’s standing ovation and exclamations as Mr. Stowell ended the show spoke to the nerve he touched in our American psyches. His rendition of “The Things They Carried” needs to be shown again and again.
“The Things They Carried”
Written and Performed by Jim Stowell
November 11 at 7 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.