George Saunders Exposes the Costs of War
by Karen Marguerite Caronna
For its 30th Anniversary year, Word for Word has put George Saunders’ touching short story onstage. In “HOME,” a veteran’s return is marred by dysfunction and rejection by his own community. Director Sheila Balter deftly moves the multi-talented cast through a veritable dance.
Choreographer Chisty Funsch evokes scenes of dark comedy. There is no welcome for this Silver-Star soldier. Brian Rivera performs Mikey with bewildered sensitivity. He finds himself shunned, even at home. Mikey is dismayed, thinking of the life that has gone on without him.
The play opens with soldiers in full combat, intensified by Cliff Cauthers’ sound design and Jim Cave’s lighting. Mikiko Uesugi’s set features a versatile, swiveling platform with movable steps, that makes a small space feel like an entire town.
The actors perform the story as written, complete with “He said …,” which heightens Mikey’s disassociation from his present circumstance. The third person story-telling style reveals that Mikey can find no home where home used to be. His alienation prevents melding into daily life.
His first encounter is with his Ma (feisty Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) who is in a relationship with a sketchy man Harris (Robert Ernst). When Ma and Harris manage to get evicted, Mikey literally has no home.
Mikey cycles through relations from his past that he cannot reconcile with his present. The stellar ensemble includes Norman Gee, Tre-Vonne Bell, Brennan Pickman-Thoon, and JoAnne Winter. Each actor rotates through several characters, even as props. Costume designer Callie Floor and assistant Nolan Mirands make their changes easy to identify, thanks to quickly changed and resonant costumes.
While people repeatedly thank him “for his service,” his sister (versatile Lisa Hori-Garcia) issues a powerful rejection. Although she is nostalgic about their past history as siblings, her husband objects. He makes it clear Mikey is not to be trusted with simply holding their infant. Mikey is rejected and doubted by all.
As his distress intensifies, the hyper-reality of his combat experience moves into the present. He is haunted by “the power of recent dark experience…shame that can’t be excused by saying you’re sorry,”
He slips into survival mode as his confusion and dislocation increase. He could easily “take out” all of them, as he once did with a pond full of nuisance tadpoles. De-sensitized to their suffering, they echo the metaphor for later de-humanization of civilians as the “collateral damage.” of military occupation.
“HOME” is an intimate portrayal of the tragedy of war. These “forever wars” injure and change combatants and their communities.
Mikey’s final plaintive cry, “You sent me, now bring me back,” should remind the war-masters of the price of sending the young to wreak violence. It is a woeful commentary, all too current, on the way how nations treat their young soldiers as disposable commodities. Go see it.
Congratulations to Word for Word on an amazing 30 years of providing the Bay Area with provocative, powerful, and relevant stories. Thank you for your service!
“HOME” by George Saunders, directed by Sheila Balter, by Word for Word at Z Below, San Francisco. Info: Zspace.org – to April 29, 2023.
Cast: Tre’Vonne Bell, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, Robert Ernst, Norman Gee, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Brennan Pickman-Thoon, Brian Rivera, and JoAnne Winter.
Banner photo: JoAnne Winter, Norman Gee, Brian Rivera, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Photos: Jay Yamada