The saddest fact about "Bury the Dead," Irwin Shaw's anti-war play on stage in a thought-provoking production at Theatre UCF, is how relevant it still is.
Shaw wrote his fantastical musing on the waste of life caused by war in 1936, when World War I was still in living memory. The rise of fascism in Europe — Adolf Hitler was already the German chancellor — meant war was on the horizon, as well.
Yet Shaw's references to sand fleas and camel dung have an extra poignancy today — 76 years later — when the most recentU.S. militaryactions have taken place in the Middle East.
Director Mark Brotherton's production at the University of Central Florida also uses sight and sound to stir memories of recent conflict. The eerie green lighting and sharp bangs at the show's start are familiar to anyone who watched news coverage of Iraqi Scud missiles slamming into Kuwait. (Lighting design is by Kenneth Haines, sound design by Phil Ingle.)
But if all the audio-visual cues seem reality-based, Shaw's play most definitely is not.
"Bury the Dead" centers on six soldiers, killed in action, who simply refuse to be buried. They aren't ghosts in white sheets; they are flesh-and-blood corpses who can still talk and move and have wills of their own.
The first act focuses mainly on the Army's reaction to this phenomenon, while in the second act the men get to address the women they left behind in the land of the living.
Shaw's absurdist, sometimes almost comical, first half fits a bit uneasily with the more emotional second half, and the UCF production doesn't do much to smooth out the wrinkles in tone.
But Donald Seay strikes just the right note of pigheadedness, coupled with bafflement, as a general who just wants the deceased to march into their graves. "Wars can only be fought and won when the dead are buried and forgotten," he sputters.
The show's punch comes in the interactions between the dead soldiers and their loved ones. Some are predictable, such as a scene between a mother and her 20-year-old son, but no less effective for that. Others surprise: A wife who blames her now-dead husband for their life of poverty.
In these young people's dashed hopes and dreams the endless stupidity of war becomes most evident. They don't speak against war; they speak of what's good about peace.
Shaw's outspoken pacifism would eventually get him into trouble — he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and left the U.S. for Europe, where he wrote successful novels including "Rich Man, Poor Man."
In his "Bury the Dead," there's no pat resolution, no happily ever after. Of course, with war there never is. In fact, as the dead march off the stage there's only a sad and desperate worry that 76 years from now, "Bury the Dead" will still have reason to resonate with audiences.
'Bury the Dead'
• What: Theatre UCF production of the Irwin Shaw play
• Length: 2 hours, including intermission
• Where: University of Central Florida, Black Box Theater, 4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando
• When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 26
• Tickets: $17; $15 seniors; $10 students
• Call: 407-823-1500Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times