“Ghosts of War” begins as Vietnam veteran Jim Kyle (George Roth) walks on stage bearing a bouquet of yellow flowers, his mien somber and introspective. Jim sits, then opens a footlocker, from which he removes a storehouse of memories: a basketball, a folded U.S. flag, photographs of all the men he lost in his platoon. Soft background music gives way to the drone of a helicopter and the sounds of combat, hurtling the audience back to the late 1960s and the Vietnam War.
“Ghosts of War,” a documentary play by Cleveland playwright, director and freelance journalist Christopher Johnston, is the true story of Jim Kyle and his best friend, Danny Nicklow, Marines who served in Vietnam.
Kyle survived. Nicklow died with most of his company on a hill in South Vietnam. He was 20.
Written with the expertise of a seasoned journalist, “ Ghosts” is a 90-minute monologue of anecdotes interspersed with facts and figures of the war, excruciatingly detailed material that could prove dry in the hands of an actor less gifted than Roth. He can find passion and heart, even in raw facts.
The play is smartly directed by Charles Kartali.
Roth makes a cast of one seem like an entire company as he recounts the story of two best friends and the people who affected them. Projections of grainy photographs of family members and happier times, of the guys in Jim Kyle’s platoon and of the Vietnam countryside heighten the drama.
In Roth’s rich storytelling, we come to know Jim and Danny intimately, from the time they met working a summer job at a marina in Maryland. Jim describes Danny as a super athlete; charismatic; a blonde-haired hit with the ladies; a regular guy from a well-to-do family, yet unspoiled and civic- minded, foregoing a full football scholarship to Youngstown State University to serve his country. Jim describes himself as self-absorbed and only interested in girls and sports, the idea of serving his country during a war something he would never consider – until the news that Danny had been killed in action, a tragedy that would change Jim’s life forever, including joining the Marines.
The war doesn’t stop when its survivors return home, notes Jim, who was discharged in 1971. The play traces his postwar years and self-destructive lifestyle, including drinking, bar fights, marriage and divorce. He takes his anger out by making tons of money – and then losing it.
Jim spends 1967 to 2007 trying to find out how his best buddy died. His tenacity pays off, and in the tear-filled finale, he pays choked-up homage to his mentor and hero.
At times, the production suffers from factual overload and needs trimming, but its emotional impact clear. It is a salute to all who went to war but never came back – and to the friendship and love of two real men in real time.
WHAT: “Ghosts of War”
WHERE: Dobama Theatre at Heights Library, 2340 Lee Rd, Cleveland Hts.
WHEN: Through Sunday, Jan. 27
TICKETS & INFO: 216-932-3396 or www.dobama.org