With a traveling facsimile of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial occupying the Cleveland Playhouse parking lot and an audience fullof vets, it’s not easy to judge Randy Myler’s “Touch the Names” from a strictly theatrical perspective. Savvy regional theaters know all about the importance of creating visible community events, and this one packs an especially potent emotional wallop. The play itself is dignified and authentic, but it’s too brief and sketchy to suggest clear commercial potential. The concept does, however, have decent B.O. promise if Myler and composer/musician Chic Street Man are willing to further shape and expand their inherently powerful material.
The idea for the piece was born when Myler (“It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues”) and Street Man (who composed “Spunk”) were wandering around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Like most visitors, they were struck by the various letters and objects left in memory of the dead. After Myler talked the National Park Service into allowing him to look through the warehouse in which these artifacts are stored, he put together some of the anonymous pieces of correspondence into a kind of musical-theater collage.
There are no traditional characters or obvious through-lines in the fashion, say, of “A Piece of My Heart.” Instead, a diverse ensemble cast speaks excerpts from the actual letters as they wander in front of a semi-abstract setting from G.W. Mercer that’s intended to recall the D.C. monument.
As one might expect, the letters are very moving. Myler has judiciously selected material that reflects a variety of ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Although they play numerous characters, the generally strong cast reflects a mix of blue- and white-collar attitudes to the legacy of the war and those who paid with their lives. The most moving segments come courtesy of Ann Guilbert, an elderly and superb thesp who serves as the maternal conscience of the piece.
Strumming a guitar onstage (a keyboardist is in the pit), Street Man contributes a typically plaintive collection of original compositions that alternate with the historical prose. His genial, pleasing style of music works well with the material — the folk-rock, vaguely bluesy style is not tied to one genre but functions as an appropriate refection of the diversity of those at (and on) the wall.
Street Man is the only one singing, which is one of the things that needs to change if this piece is to function as anything close to a full-blown evening of musical theater. And while audiences today are used to shows without traditional narratives (such a thing would be an imposition here), this piece needs more dramatic heft in places and a more satisfying climax. It’s all potentially there in the letters.
Audiences were sniffing loudly on opening weekend, but that’s easy to achieve given the fare. If their aims extend beyond supplying a theatrical catharsis for a great national nightmare, Myler and Street Man need to draft themselves back to work.