The intense and well-designed production of Paul Gillette’s “Red River Rats” catches eight former Vietnam Air Force officers during a reunion at a bar about 20 years after they had been prisoners of war. With often gritty, believable performances, nudity and much profanity, the play shows how the war has defined who these men are. While the brutality and unfairness of the war have become familiar territory from numerous plays and films, Gillette nevertheless gives several new spins.
Rat Donovan (Thom McFadden) has hired prostitutes Cindy (Catherine Case) and Frankie (Judi Diamond) to enliven the evening, and the women become the sounding boards for the men’s wartime experiences.
The women also reflect the men’s adolescent sexuality, frozen in place by the war. The men often fondly recall the prostitutes from the period.
The main focus of the reunion, however, is an unraveling of the mystery of who had cracked under torture and given information to the enemy, which led to the punishment of two POWs.
TV actor Jack Scalia makes an auspicious stage debut as Jungle Graziani, one of the two punished men who has recently discovered who told on him.
S.A. Griffin indelibly portrays a character whose confusion and anger about the war seeps out with a few drinks; Bryan Kent reinforces people’s image of politicians as those who can lay chrome on empty phrases.
Julius Harris gives compassion to his role as a retired one-star general who has, alone among them, accepted the past and moved on to other wars.
Case and Diamond, as the prostitutes, infuse their characters with a sense of curiosity and anguish.
McFadden, Tom Wideline, Jack Nance and Bert Kramer adeptly round out the cast.
Playwright Gillette (who wrote the novel “Play Misty for Me” that was the source of the Clint Eastwood film) based the drama on his research into several real “rats.” As uncompromising as the situations and language sometimes are, his affection for the men and his sensitivity to their trauma is apparent.
Director John Pieplow has succeeded in making each of the 10 characters unique, and gives them sure blocking and business that never lapses into chaos, but keeps the audience on edge.
The lighting by Ivan Spiegel does the job, as does Brad Morris’ set.