French playwright Gérald Sibleyras’ “Le Vent Des Peupliers,” which has been translated into English by British playwright Tom Stoppard and retitled “Heroes,” is a modest work affectionately referred to as a “boulevard comedy.” Like a boulevard, it is broad in terms of its humor, well-manicured in its demeanor, and trotted upon by everyday people going about their everyday business.
The play opened in London in 2005, had a brief stint Off-Broadway in 2009, and is currently on stage at Clague Playhouse.
It is 1959 when we encounter three aging World War I veterans on the terrace of their nursing home. There, they address a range of small topics that loom large for old men with nothing but time on their hands and fleeting memories of glory days on their increasingly fragile minds.
The charming Henri (Bob Goddard), who experienced a disabling leg injury during the war and has been at the home for 25 years, fantasizes about the comely headmistress at the girls school in the next town over. Philippe (Ron Newell), who has shrapnel in his head and suffers from mild dementia and frequent blackouts, is convinced that Sister Madeleine, the five-foot-tall nun who runs the home, is trying to kill him. The cantankerous Gerald (Robert Hawkes) suffers from a crippling agoraphobia and yet is planning a great escape to Indo-China, though he is willing to settle for an excursion to the poplars that wave in the wind on the faraway hill past the cemetery.
Each scene in “Heroes” finds the three on the terrace – realistically rendered and lit by Newell and Lance Switzer, respectively, with spot-on ambient sound by Lisa L. Wiley – quibbling and quarrelling and going nowhere. And so this is a sentimental, bittersweet play that, sadly, finds its humor in exhaustively set-up one-liners equally doled out among the players, the occasional sight gag such as Philippe attempting to put on his pants, and running gags that limp along like Henri and include Philippe’s fainting mid-sentence then awakening with the phrase “we’ll take them from the rear, Captain” and Gustave’s affinity for the stone statue of a dog that obediently sits on the terrace.
It is quite impossible to ignore that the maladies of old age and world-wide warfare serve as the source material for this comedy, which can be a tough row to hoe for an audience without the benefit of French sensibilities or a British sense of humor.
Clague audiences are likely to find that the primary pleasure in this production lies not in the work but in watching three brilliant, seasoned professionals at work under Anne McEvoy’s gentle direction. She massages rather than mauls the play’s funny bone and instead of the frontal assault the comedy has the potential to be, she allows “Heroes” to subtly approach the audience from the rear.
This show’s solid ensemble is comprised of individual performers who are interesting, distinctive and can absolutely own the stage when the playwright gives them license and sets them in motion. And they master the little things. Just listen to the indignation in Hawkes’ pronunciation of the word “picnic” when the others suggest this option over him going AWOL to Indo-China. Just watch the twinkling in Goddard’s eye as he shares his wayward plan for sexual mischief or attempts to be the leader of the group. Try to keep your eyes off of anything Newell brings to the stage.
And yet, these three are even better as a collective whole, when they blend together to find and ride the play’s comic and occasionally tragic rhythms, and feed off of each other’s generosity.
So, come for the sentimental story with a gripping title, but stay for the remarkable stagecraft in these actors’ storytelling.