Heroes by Gérald Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard; Kitchen Theatre, through Sept 22; kitchentheatre.org
Some things French: the soufflé, the music of Satie and Faure, the films of Truffaut, the plays of Anouilh, Cocteau and Giradoux.
There is a strain of French culture that delights in lightness, in transience, in the elegance of simplicity. Talk, too, can be important: repartee. This is the pedigree of Sibleyras’ delightful, bittersweet comedy Le vent des peupliers (The Wind in the Poplars), which has been retitled Heroes in Stoppard’s translation.
“Heroes” suggests something brassy and loud, or at the least deliberately ironic. Stoppard suggests wit and bon mots (check) but also intricacy in plot, and complexity in theme. Ah, but this play is French, and breathes a simpler air.
And the country air of a tiny terrace veteran’s home in France of 1959 is exactly what is evoked in Kent Goetz’s luscious set for the Kitchen Theatre’s season opener (stones and a clay tiled roof), suffused with the cloud-chased lights of late summer melting into the fall designed by Tyler Perry. The costumes of Lisa Boquist bespeak the attempt to maintain a sense of charm against encroaching time, while the original music and sound design by Anthony Mattana suggest fleet time itself.
Three WW1 veterans play out there final years on this terrace: the aristocratic Gustave (Evan Thompson), the ‘enthusiast’ Henri (Arthur Bicknell), and the slightly tetchy Philippe (Eric Brooks).
Henri wishes to engage, to savor. His constitutional takes him to a girls’ school beyond sight of the home, where he gets to flirt, the details to be savored by his comrades. Bicknell gives him a sly eagerness, a largesse that can easily be punctured by a rude rejoinder. Oddly, he is the closest to a realist of the trio.
Philippe has a war injury that causes him to suddenly pass out mid-sentence and is slightly paranoid that their ‘keeper’, the redoubtable sister Mathilde, has plans to bump him off (he believes she only allows one birthday apiece among the inmates, and his birthday is shared by a new arrival, suspiciously robust.) Brooks inhabits the role fully, popping in and out of consciousness, querulous, easily swept up into the adventures cooked up by the other two, but always hesitant to choose sides.
Gustave plays as if he is above it all, disparaging every suggestion by Henri that the day might be delightful (he has a wonderful speech where he dismisses each month of the year as worse than the other.) Thompson is crisp, precise, dead-on with each witty riposte, yet revealing the vulnerability beneath, the absolute need for companionship that Gustave continually disavows. Although agoraphobic, he is the one who suggests an elaborate escape plan, hearkening back to those days of combat glory. Thompson makes Gustave’s collapse at the very gate of the terrace comically heartbreaking.
Margarett Perry directs with a light touch, allowing the badinage to unfold, the days to have their quick succession, and the shades of autumn to finally blow off the late summer as the geese get ready for their winter migration.
In the end this is simply a play about old age and companions in the flight into the sunset. And such fabulous companions they are in the performances of Bicknell, Brooks and Thompson.