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An Emotional ‘Welcome’ for Ex-Soldiers : Theater: Playhouse West show brings veterans to their feet with poignant re-creations of the return from Vietnam.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. <i> Szymanski writes regularly for The Times</i>

Every Saturday night 33 acting students at Playhouse West in North Hollywood try to re-create the pain, anger and isolation still felt by Vietnam War veterans. The actors--most of them not old enough to remember the unpopular war--shout at each other, laugh and cry as they perform “Welcome Home, Soldier.”

Each week, the audience is sprinkled with real-life Vietnam War veterans--many have come more than a dozen times--and often those veterans get so caught up in the story that they jump from their seats, scream at the actors and join in the play.

“There’s a lot of raw emotion that comes from the audience because all the stories we tell in the play are true stories about the soldiers returning from the Vietnam War,” Robert Carnegie said.

The owner and director of Playhouse West, Carnegie also performs in the play.

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“When they stand up and shout back at us, when they come up on stage, it really comes from the heart,” he says. “We incorporate it into the play.”

For the actors, the experience is an example of the improvisation-based Sanford Meisner acting technique, which they study at the playhouse. It has gone beyond that, though.

Sold out since June, the play has become a social cause for the actors. All proceeds--so far, more than $2,000--go to veterans charities, and the cast sent two of the audience regulars to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. This Thanksgiving, the cast plans to have a holiday dinner with veterans who are part of their new family.

For the veterans, the play has become a unique form of therapy. Many of them come every week from local veterans hospitals under the supervision of a counselor or chaplain.

Charles Grimes, 45, who was dragged in unwillingly by a fellow veteran, sat quietly in the back of the theater dressed in a Lakers cap and shirt. When actors in the audience heckled actors on stage making speeches about the war’s 10th anniversary, Grimes said, a wave of memories about his two tours of Army duty in Vietnam flooded back.

Grimes stood up in the middle of the play and shouted through his tears: “We went over there to a war we didn’t belong in!”

In the play, the actors tell about arriving home at airports across the country and being met by protesters who threw animal blood and urine at them. And in the audience, Grimes stood up and told about being spit on at Los Angeles International Airport when he came home. Cast members incorporated his outburst into the show.

At intermission, Grimes was embarrassed when he realized he had interrupted the performance. Fellow veterans and some of the actors hugged him.

“I thought those were other veterans getting up and telling their stories. It was all so real to me,” Grimes said. “All these feelings were coming out of me that I hadn’t felt before. I realized I wasn’t over it.”

When he returned from Vietnam, Grimes’ family didn’t understand him, and his fiancee left him because his mood had darkened. His story was similar to the ones that director Tony Savant collected for the play.

“In my research, many portrayals of these vets were that they were crazy and unpredictable Rambos, but they’re the most humble, down-to-earth caring people I’ve ever met,” said Savant, 28, who also acts in the play. “I certainly don’t look old enough to have been in the war, but we get so emotional that afterward some of the veterans come up to console me.”

Carnegie started the play as a class project just after the Persian Gulf War broke out and some of his students planned to join protests. Instead, he assigned them to talk to veterans about their reaction to peace demonstrators.

Producer and actress Holly Gagnier, who portrays a stiff, emotionless veteran’s wife, said that for the first time, the buzz backstage isn’t about what agent or producer is in the audience, but how many veterans have shown up.

“We’re realizing that theater has a responsibility to the community,” she said. “This isn’t just another play to put on our resume; we’re having an impact on people out there.”

At the finale of every show, the cast sings a rousing version of the rock song “Philadelphia Freedom,” and veterans from the audience go on stage to share in the applause. After the show, veterans read poetry, sing songs or tell their own stories for anyone willing to stay. Then, the actors take the veterans out to a local pizzeria and sometimes talk until dawn.

“If what we’re doing is bull, they tell us,” said Brett Harman, 30, who went to the war memorial to better understand his role and who drives some of the veterans home to the hospitals after the show. “We’ve become family to these guys, and it’s usually hard for them to talk about their experience. Sometimes they do open up. Sometimes they let us use their stories in the play.”

Wounded veteran Bob Pickell told an actor about a protester smashing his face with a brick when he came back from Vietnam in a wheelchair. That story is now part of the play.

The cast was shaken in August when one of their most supportive veterans, R. C. Cook, committed suicide after a barroom brawl. Cook had befriended the actors and passed out hundreds of flyers to promote the show, so the cast attended his funeral. Cook’s mother, Geraldine, said that the play was the only thing the veteran looked forward to each week and that it helped ease his alienation.

Each week, no matter how packed the 45-seat theater gets, a chair is left empty in Cook’s memory.

“This is the only place I really hear the truth,” said Glenn King, 44, who was in the Navy in Vietnam from 1965 through 1966, and was coaxed into seeing the play by his friend, Cook. “It’s hard sometimes to come here, but it’s more real than anything that happens to me at the hospital.”

In a program for homeless drug- and alcohol-addicted veterans, King lives in the Westwood Veterans Administration Hospital. Wearing a long, shaggy white beard and a head-band, he is dubbed “Papa Smurf” by the cast, and after the show he plays his guitar and sings war-era ballads.

“The longest I’ve held a job is two years. I’ve been married twice, and I never thought I could find anyone other than another veteran who could understand me, until now,” said King, who credits the young actors for his renewed vow to stay sober.

“Each week that they come back we see the veterans change,” said actor Scott Trost, 37, who plays a tight-lipped officer with a candy-coated sense of patriotism. “We see how they learn to express their feelings more by coming here, and in the process we become more passionate as actors.”

Actor Mark Pellegrino, 26, delved into his role as a bitter Green Beret so much that he now has nightmares about Vietnam. Wearing a red beret and khaki fatigues at a social event after the show and assuming a gruff attitude, Pellegrino admitted that the role has changed him, and he often encourages the veterans in the audience to shout at the cast members on stage.

“We know they’ll never get violent, but they do let out their anger and frustration,” said Pellegrino, who recently appeared in the film “Blood and Concrete.”

“It’s intimidating sometimes that actual vets are in the audience. We can get emotional and tell their stories, but we can’t ever feel what they’ve been through. Never.”

Lisa Kaminir takes the brunt of the abuse by vets because her character is a naive apologist for peace activists.

“It gets real tense some nights; some veterans really explode, and those emotions are real,” Kaminir said.

Some veterans, like Clifford Oliver, are learning to express emotions for the first time since the war. When he returned to South Central Los Angeles after two years as a combat artilleryman in the Army, Oliver, 42, said he was afraid to tell people where he had been.

Now he is in a program for post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating physical and mental condition that happens to some victims of a disaster. In his treatment, he is trying to relive the suppressed horrors of the war. The play is helping him do that.

“I can’t cry; I just feel numb when I come here,” said Oliver, who clenched his fists all the way through a recent show. “I feel depressed all the time, sometimes I wish I wasn’t one of the ones who came home.”

After the play, Oliver read his own poetry. In one piece, he wrote about his isolation: “Using preconceived TV images of our mental state, thoroughly convinced them they could never relate.” After the play, he told stories about babies being booby-trapped with bombs and elderly women used as camouflage by enemy troops.

Oliver said he keeps coming back to sort out his feelings.

“In November, it will be 20 years since I’ve been back from Vietnam,” he said, “and it isn’t until I’ve started coming to this play that I feel like I’ve finally been welcomed home.”

A veteran who lives in Canyon Country, Bill Miller, 43, said he never really came home. Sometimes wearing his Distinguished Service Cross to the show, he said he went directly to Europe after the war because he wanted to avoid being branded a “baby-killer” by his countrymen.

“I knew what to expect, and I didn’t want to hear it,” Miller said. “This play isn’t for veterans, it’s for everyone else. People should learn to never ever turn your back on veterans returning from war.”

Disabled veteran Richard Habitzreuther, 46, paralyzed on his left side by a mortar shell, said the play may make people of every political stripe sympathetic to soldiers. He said, “I’ve come to see it a second time because it reminds me of things I’ve always wanted to say.”

When the play ends at the end of January, the actors said, their relationships with the veterans will continue, and the veterans said they still plan to come to the theater. Until then, the actors continue to collect actual gut-wrenching stories from the veterans, such as when the cast sent Staci Blair McCord and Casey Romero to the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

“I lost a good friend over there, Tony Perez, and I always promised myself to tell him I loved him,” said Romero, an Army veteran. “We were going from house to house on a mission and he got hit, and I could see him, but I couldn’t get to him to help him. I knew he was dying, and he asked me to see his mother and girlfriend. I kept telling him he was going to make it.”

When the playhouse pitched in to send him across the country, Romero spent seven hours in front of his friend’s name listed on the black marble wall.

“I finally got to tell him I loved him,” Romero said. “I grew up in a tough Mexican family, and we didn’t say those things, and men didn’t cry.”

Now, Romero spends much of the two hours of the play sobbing.

“It’s good for me; these actors are friends,” Romero said. “They listen to me.”

“Welcome Home Soldier” is playing at 8 p.m. every Saturday through January at Playhouse West, 4250 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Tickets are $7, and donations go to Vietnam and Persian Gulf War charities. Call (818) 766-3766.


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