Irwin Shaw’s ferocious 1936 antiwar allegory “Bury the Dead” is always relevant, alas. The spectacle of six casualties’ refusal to go gently into a deep, anonymous trench never stops offering society a potent gut shot, especially now, when images of war’s cost are systematically withheld from those on the home front. Shaw’s message — men should fight and die for what matters to them, not for someone else’s trumped-up cause — comes through forcefully, even in this very inconsistent Actors’ Gang revival.
The production’s triumph comes in the treatment of the recalcitrant dead. Despite their rictus smiles smeared in blood-mottled whiteface, they’re by far the most alive and multifaceted occupants of designer Francois-Pierre Couture’s blue papier-mache no-man’s land. The sextet’s wellspring of humor and perspective forces us to acknowledge the distinctive individuality each moldering cadaver possessed in life, even as government is determined to deny it with shovelfuls of dirt.
The men are types, but as played here, they are never stereotypes. John Pick bittersweetly transcends Pvt. Levy’s womanizing bravado to declare he’s still owed each man’s due measures of joy and pain. Andrew Wheeler takes physical pleasure in Pvt. Schelling’s memories of his old farm, investing his manifesto — “My business is what’s on top of the earth, not beneath it” — with stubborn conviction.
The arguments of Gold Star moms and sweethearts, conscripted to persuade the men to lie down and disappear, are to no avail. Baby-faced Pvt. Dean (Jesse Luken) breaks our heart with this confession to his grieving mom: “I’ve never done anything, never seen anything. I practiced for 20 years to be a man, and then they killed me.”
All the while, helmer Matthew Huffman sculpts the six trench occupants, ingeniously masked by a lean-to, into inexpressibly sad group poses, living war memorials to unforgivable waste.
For all its frequent eloquence and relative brevity, the show becomes sluggish as most of the powers-that-be, and several of the women, indulge in caricature and cliche. Obvious acting choices — mad generals barking; a rabid clergyman inveighing; insincere sweethearts freely bawling rather than holding back tears — undercut Shaw’s intended celebration of our entire species.
Why is multilayered characterization the province of the dead alone? Surely the humanity of victims need not be brought out at the expense of that of their oppressors.
Moreover, Huffman keeps sending thesp after thesp forward to emote face-front, a 1930s agitprop presentational style now corny and overdone. The poignancy gained as living wives and dead husbands look into each other’s eyes, even tremulously touching at once point, is repeatedly destroyed by pretentious, dispensable little touches of Brecht in the night.