“It’s not a pretty play, but it’s not a pretty world.” The quote by “American Tet” playwright Lydia Stryk is appropriate to describe most productions of the 2004 Iraqi War drama, including K-State Theatre’s current presentation.
“Pretty” is a word that usually brings something pleasant to mind. “Pretty” might be applicable to the set design, which was handcrafted to represent a dreamy American backyard blanketed in the safety of home, but don’t be fooled; the “pretty” in “American Tet” ends there.
The play is a provocative conversation at its core. The script is full of unnerving moments, both at home as well as in foreign lands, which director Samantha Hindle, graduate in theater, said she finds very relevant today.
“I was a military spouse for four years, and I think that it’s important for us to look at how war affects us on a micro level as opposed to always looking at it on a macro level, in terms of how it’s affecting nations, the economy and all of that,” Hindle said. “I really wanted to focus on how it impacts families.”
The cast has been rehearsing for two months and has valued the exercises that allowed them to escape character and the emotional context of the script, Tori Ptacek, senior in theater, said.
“Getting out of character has been tricky, but we do really (have) fun de-rolling activities, and then also sometimes after rehearsal I’ll just drive around and listen to music,” Ptacek said. “It just kind of helps Tori come back.”
The cast itself is a mixture of old and new faces to K-State Theatre; this is a return to the Purple Masque stage for Ptacek, who plays the role of Elaine Krombacher, a wife and mother struggling with the pros and cons of patriotism. Some of the most powerful scenes were executed by Ptacek and Dinh Phan-Elliott, sophomore in business administration, who portrayed Nuh, the voice of Vietnam and a silenced people.
“I’m a Vietnamese girl so when I read the script, I recognized where I come from,” Phan-Elliott said. “I liked the way the character Nuh showed her emotions about her history, the Buddha, everything. Everything about it is so beautiful.”
Phan is a newcomer to K-State Theatre, and as an international student brought a nonnative perspective to the production.
“I had many problems with pronunciation and grammar,” Phan-Elliott said. “The way that actors show emotion here is different from my country. I’ve joined theater while at university in Vietnam, which was really light and funny, so I’m very excited to try this.”
The lead male role, Vietnam War veteran Jim Krombacher, is played by Sam Neel, freshman in theater. Neel’s performance as a middle-aged father retired from active duty is harrowing and convincing; it is a true casting victory of collegiate theater.
The roles of Krombacher’s children are played by Kelli Jones, junior in theater, and Jacob Edelman-Dolan, freshman in theater. Jones portrays Amy, the conflict-driven teenage daughter, while Edelman-Dolan plays Danny, the young military policeman whose isolating soliloquies and visit home from Iraq brings raging colors to the black and white world desperately created by the Krombacher family.
The chilling Angela Gomez, a disfigured American soldier of the Iraq war, is played by Kelly Serna, senior in psychology. The show’s second act was haunted by the image of the injured Angela, whose painful shrieks and labored breathing will surely leave audiences struggling with the same moral dilemmas experienced by the characters.
“When I was researching the play, realizing how many veterans are dying on their home soil due to suicide, I found that veterans are killing themselves at eight times the rate of soldiers being killed in action,” Hindle said.
Those who can grasp the themes of forsaken veterans will have truly understood the concepts communicated by the script and Hindle’s vision.
“When you see the statistics it’s pretty scary, and so coming at it from a drama therapy perspective, I wanted people to have that awareness that we’re really failing our veterans in terms of their homecoming and their treatment,” Hindle said.
“American Tet” opens today at 7:30 p.m. at K-State’s Purple Masque Theatre in West Stadium, with additional performances Friday and Saturday.