Reality and memory vividly coexist — sometimes as dance partners, sometimes as antagonists — in director Robert Rosen's alternately muscular and lyrical production of "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue."
The poetic one-act by playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, which opened over the weekend at Park Square Theatre, is the first of a trilogy orbiting Elliot and his Philadelphia-based family. The play was a finalist for a 2007 Pulitzer Prize, while the second in the trilogy, "Water by the Spoonful," won a Pulitzer in 2012.
"Elliot" looks at the effects of battle on a patriotic Puerto Rican family that has served in the U.S. military for three generations. Elliot (Ricardo Vázquez) fought in Tikrit, Iraq, hometown of Saddam Hussein. His father, Pop (Rich Remedios), fought in Vietnam, and Grandpop (Pedro Bayon) is a veteran of the Korean War.
Their letters and memories speak across generations and battlefronts in a drama that limns the costs, physical and psychic, that warriors pay for their service. It looks at their quiet suffering long after the festive parades and ribbon campaigns.
The epistolary structure of "Elliot" gives it the feel of a memory play, which is tricky to handle. Such works can often seem static and unfocused, especially if the actors are mostly speaking directly to the audience, as they do here.
But Rosen animates the drama of "Elliot," showing that the tension is not between the characters, but within them.
The three soldiers, in fact, show a continuity that makes them one. Elliot's war experience, visible in his limp and hidden in his tremulous soul, is a dark reflection of those of his father and grandfather. And for all three, the world zigs between the war front and the home front, between cold fear and warm comfort.
Vázquez is well-cast as Elliot. He has the chiseled physique and the fearlessness of a warrior, so that when he drops to the floor, nearly naked, we know he is ready. The push-ups that he does are a familiar ritual of a martial life. So, too, are the stories he tells us about folding linen precisely, managing rations and engaging the enemy.
Vázquez hints at the character's scars in his carriage and cadences. The macho exterior gives way to pauses that are full of questions, to quiet that can be frightening.
Broadway actor Remedios ("Love! Valour! Compassion!") and Bayon have good chemistry with Vázquez. They are convincing in their physicality and also in the masculine way in which they hold and behold each other. There is caring there, somewhere beneath their manly veneers.
Adlyn Carreras plays Elliot's mother, Ginny, a former war nurse who met her husband in Vietnam. She has one of the play's best soliloquies, about the grace she showed the men there as they expired. Carreras nails it with aplomb.
That Elliot's world is colored by patriotism is evident in the design of Rosen's production. The floor of Kit Mayer's set, lit by Michael Kittel, is painted with a solitary star (for Puerto Rico) and stripes. That iconography points to service and sacrifice in a drama suffused with dualities.