by JK Clarke
If you grew up in the 1970s or 80s in the U.S. someone you knew likely had a relative who was a Vietnam Vet. Often they were damaged men with a host of problems created by compulsory participation in a war that made no sense to almost none who went and very few who remained stateside; soldiers who were jeered upon their return for their participation in a war that had become unpopular. Naturally, the homes and family lives these men returned to were not the stuff of the dreams they’d had while enduring the unbearable hell that is war. Basil Kreimendahl’s gentle examination of one such family, Orange Julius (now playing through February 12 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater), offers a keen insight into the complications a veteran’s psyche and illnesses throw into an already complicated household.
Like many vets, Julius (Stephen Payne) the veteran of this story, is frequently beset by flashbacks, finding himself back in the war waiting for helicopters to airlift him, injured, out of the battlefield. His guilt at leaving comrades behind seems to have forced him to relive the event over and over, and he enlists his youngest child, Nut (Jess Barbagallo) as a player in his hallucination.
Grown up Nut is our narrator, and he recounts undergoing stressful enough problems on his own. When asked by his older sister, Crimp (a convincingly caring Irene Sofia Lucio) if he wants people to think he’s a boy because of his short hairstyle, Nut panics: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” Small, boyish, adolescent Nut clearly has gender identity questions and confusion. He seems to want to be the tough, gritty son he thinks his father wants.
In an interview with The New York Times, transgender playwright Kreimendahl called Orange Julius “a very personal play,” and it shows. The conflict between Nut and his father couldn’t be more fraught with confusion and misunderstanding no matter how hard they try to connect. Director Dustin Willis demonstrates Nut’s love for Julius by allowing him to participate in his flashbacks for which he doesn’t appear to judge him. His own struggle with a society that doesn’t understand mirrors, his inability to reintegrate. The two are orphans in a world that craves order, which they both know is impossible for them. Like the fathers of my childhood friends, Julius’s idiosyncratic, often self-harming behavior is relentless. And while he seems to crave death throughout his life, when he’s faced with it as a result of cancers brought on by Agent Orange (an herbicide used by the U.S. military to “clear foliage”), he begs to hold on.
Although Julius (Payne—with his thousand mile stare and Charles Bukowski-esque alcoholic comportment—is exactly what I’ve seen in countless Vietnam Vets, perhaps because he himself is one) is the main subject of Orange Julius, the play enjoys extra dimension courtesy of Barbagallo, who demonstrates palpable angst as Nut, a likeable, bewildered kid who tries to make the best of a bad situation, despite it being beyond his control. What we see here is a family ruined by a war that should never have taken place and one can’t help but realize that, over the past twenty years, we’ve been creating a whole new generation of Julius’s and families like his.
Orange Julius. Through February 12 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, between West 11th and Perry Streets, West Village). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.rattlestick.org
Photos: Sandra Coudert Graham