Is it finally time to talk about Vietnam? That’s the heart-wrenching question scribe David Epstein poses in “Surface to Air,” his gripping drama about a Long Island family that gathers to receive the remains of a beloved son shot down in Vietnam 30 years ago. Tensions are high (if not high enough for dramatic purposes) as Mom and Dad, their two grown children and respective spouses air their long-buried feelings about the politics — and the pity — of an ultimately senseless war.
With a delicate play on a touchy subject, it’s all in the timing, and Epstein’s was badly off when he set his play shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, but failed to integrate that catastrophic event into the script. At a time when everyone in this traumatized nation was obsessing about the attack of foreign terrorists on American soil, this family barely alludes to it.
Terri (Cady Huffman), the movie-executive daughter who flies in from the coast, at least brings along a husband who isn’t totally oblivious. When asked about their flight, Andrew (Bruce Altman) has the decency to mention the “awful” sight of the gaping skyline. “People at the windows, staring, gawking — everybody looking for what isn’t there anymore.”
But, wouldn’t you know it, the phone rings. And the subject rarely surfaces again for the remainder of the play.
Instead, there is much dawdling on the surprise marriage of older brother Eddie (James Colby) to the much younger Magdalena (Marisa Echeverria), a native of Belize with a lovely smile and a shrewd appreciation of American capitalism. But since everyone, including the doddering old folks, embraces the personable young woman without a squawk about her foreign origins, there’s no dramatic suspense to be mined from that dead-end plot point.
Aside from keeping us anxiously waiting for the doorbell to ring, the play concentrates its dramatic attention on the sidelines of the stage, where the young Rob (Mark J. Sullivan) relives his war experiences as a fighter pilot in Vietnam. Epstein draws a taut connecting line between the dead soldier and his father, Hank. The older man’s muted misery and unfathomable grief are brilliantly managed by Larry Bryggman in outbursts of anger that flare up and die away like the eruptions of a volcano so far under the sea, no one even knows it’s there.
Although he plays it fast and loose with plot development and character conflict, Epstein takes more care with the showdown among the three (living) male characters over what constitutes a just and honorable war — or if, indeed, there is such a thing. While it’s a long time coming and imperfectly motivated, the scene is strongly written and gathers force from the emotional honesty of the performances turned in by the big-league cast under actor James Naughton’s direction.
Waves of suffering emanate from Lois Smith’s vacant-eyed and sweet-tempered Princess, the broken mother who has never given up the wait for her son’s return. And while the other women in the household are not given much to say or do, both Echeverria and Huffman manage to look properly stricken when their men erupt in a furious, if unfocused argument about the nature of honor in a dishonorable war.
But the primary thrust of Epstein’s play has to do with unlocking the pent-up emotions of men trained to set their jaws and swallow hard when they get the urge to weep or wail. Everything is set up for the poignant 11th-hour outpouring of love and grief from Bryggman’s Hank, who was never able to express it aloud.
Almost as riveting is the speech Colby delivers with palpable anguish when Eddie finally confesses that Vietnam was a horror and his own heroism in battle a sham.
Altman makes a brave effort to bring something believable to son-in-law Andrew’s feeble admission of feeling “left out” of Vietnam, although there’s really nobody home underneath that character’s thin skin.
For all the script’s imperfections, there are no flies on either cast or director, or for that matter, on their creative backup. Laurie Churba’s costumes suit the characters without making obtrusive statements, as do the modest patriotic touches in James Noone’s set (a flag flying on the front lawn, a smaller one peeking out from a knitted afghan) that define the all-American stock this family represents.
The play’s big letdown is the scribe’s failure to use the incendiary emotions he has unleashed about Vietnam to fuel a full-scale engagement on the current war in Iraq. Instead of dithering about daughter Terri’s abrasive professional manner and daughter-in-law Magdalena’s kooky idea for a Latino bagel shop, Epstein would have better served his play by allowing all the members of this American family to speak their hearts about what it feels like to have survived Vietnam now that a pall of smoke hangs over the World Trade Center.