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STAGE REVIEW : Is “Tracers” Still on Target as a Play About the Vietnam War?

One type of play can informally be called the group confessional. The pride of the genre is “A Chorus Line,” still a Broadway hit. It was inspired by the tales director Michael Bennett heard from actual chorus-line dancers.

Closer to home is the long-running “Six Women With Brain Death Or Expiring Minds Want to Know” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. The group confessional offers verisimilitude about an event. These are, after all, true stories. Because the show is the vision of several people, the focus is invariably diffuse. What we are offered, instead of one individual’s story to follow, is the story of a time or place and those who shape or are shaped by that time or place.

“Tracers,” produced by the Ensemble Arts Theatre and playing at Sushi Gallery through April 23, is very much the group confessional.

Created by a Vietnam veteran, John DiFusco, and written by eight Vietnam veterans, seven of whom doubled as its original cast, “Tracers” tackled the truth of the Vietnam war in 1980, before many people in the theater or Hollywood thought the subject matter commercially viable. The first Vietnam movie, “Coming Home,” a Jane Fonda good guy/anti-war versus bad guy/pro-war polemic, dates back to 1978. There were other attempts to portray the war on film, but none caught on with the public until “Platoon,” followed by “Full Metal Jacket” and “Hamburger Hill,” all relatively recent efforts.

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After almost a decade, the question that remains is whether veterans are still close to the material in “Tracers"--and if the material itself still holds up.

The interest of local veterans to the show can be seen in the intense loyalty five vets have shown to the project, volunteering their time to counsel the cast. As for the creators of the show, consider this:

Ginny-Lynn Safford, the director of the newly formed Ensemble Arts Theatre, asked DiFusco to come for opening night. He did, and when Safford’s sergeant (Wilson Adam Schooley) had to stay home with a temperature of 103 Saturday night, she asked DiFusco to stand in on a few hours’ notice. DiFusco read from the script, never having played the part of the sergeant before.

The material itself is another story. It is more successful in the second act where it attempts to show how the war affected the soldiers’ minds and hearts as opposed to the first act, which settles for simply chronicling what happened. Recent movies about the Vietnam experience are to blame for the deja vu feeling to most of the first act. If you don’t recognize the tough, abuse-'em-to-save-'em sergeant from “Full Metal Jacket,” it’s the same part Lou Gossett Jr. won an Oscar for in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

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The second half is much stronger because it plunges inside to the realms of madness and sickness: the soldier who tries to survive by resisting close ties to his buddies, who, after all, may die; the medic who succumbs to suicidal despair; the “lifer” who hates Vietnam but re-enlists because it is too hard to readjust to the world outside; the quiet, careful man who enrages others when he tries to assemble blown-up parts of soldiers into whole bodies for burial.

What makes “Tracers” work, when it does, is the cast, which seems utterly absorbed in the pain and pathos of the stories and the direction, by Safford, which whips the group up, intermittently, into a frenzy.

Paul Jennings as the baby-faced recruit, nicknamed Baby San, offers the most accessible characterization for those who never thought they would end up in Vietnam. A draftee, Baby San almost got to sit out the war as a computer operator, before he annoyed his supervisor and got switched, as punishment, to become a foot-soldier grunt. His movement from terrified novice to a detached killing machine is chilling, because the leap is so large.

But all the actors inspire fear, not just because of what they learn to do to others--kill without forethought--but because of what they learn to do to themselves to survive. They cut the blood flow to their emotions as surely as if they had wrapped tourniquets around their hearts.

James Mooney and David Whitney Johnson bring crazed intensity to the parts of Dinky Dau (Vietnamese slang for crazy) and Scooter; Ron Lang and Duke Windsor offer solid balance as Little John and Habu, the men who actually want to be good warriors.

Tim West, however, has not gotten into the guts of the all-important part of Professor, the man who tries to escape the war through reading “Steppenwolf.” He has got the anger, but what he needs to convey is the blurry distance afforded to him by his books and opera fantasies--his drugs of choice for escaping the reality of Vietnam.

Whether the script of “Tracers” continues to have a future is debatable; as more material on the war comes out, the search for newer and deeper insights threatens to render old truths old hat.

The message of “Tracers” is that you don’t have to destroy a world to destroy a heart, and you don’t have to cripple a body to cripple a spirit.

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“TRACERS”

Conceived by John DiFusco. Written by Vincent Caristi, Richard Chaves, John DiFusco, Eric E. Emerson, Rick Gallavan, Merlin Marston, Harry Stephens and Sheldon Lettich. Director is Ginny-Lynn Safford. Original music by Mark Attebery. Set by Paul Bedington and Mario Lara. Video and sound design by Burnham Joiner. Lighting by J. Michael Griggs. Stage manager is Jason Chaney. With Paul Jennings, David Whitney Johnson, Paul James Kruse, Ron Lang, James Mooney, Tim West, Duke Windsor and John DiFusco substituting for Wilson Adam Schooley March 18. At 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays through April 23. At 852 Eighth Ave., San Diego.


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