When people give so much of themselves early in life, does it stand to reason that there's next to nothing left for the remaining years?
So it seems with the three decorated geriatric World War I veterans on the sanatorium terrace in Heroes, Tom Stoppard's 2005 adaptation of Gerald Sibleyras' 2003 comedy Le Vent des Peupliers.
Wednesday's opening of Lantern Theater Company's production was too purposefully loopy to be traditionally heroic, raising plenty of worthwhile questions not in the confrontational, hyper-articulate fashion of an actual Stoppard play, but in a more meandering, less-rigorous fashion with numerous loose ends, often charming, sometimes less so.
One of the veterans has shrapnel in his head and frequent fainting spells. Another has a bad leg. The least impaired has phobias that don't allow him to leave the premises. A silent fourth character is an amiable stone statue of a dog (the sort seen on the RCA Victor logo), a point of reference for everybody's hold on reality. One character sees it move. Another thinks it's real. Sometimes.
Often discussed but never seen is Sister Madeline, the nun who seems to run the place and might be an angel of death or something more abstract, like the Godot that the characters are waiting for. One thinks of Samuel Beckett amid the stasis of the plot but also of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, with weather-beaten men trapped inside themselves.
At least in some scenes. Characters seem to change personalities from scene to scene. Is it bad writing? Or portrayals of dementia, which so often takes the form of earnest normality veering into delusion? That, plus the play's innate modesty, perhaps limits its viability in places as Stoppard-centric as Philadelphia. Having seen so much of his work here, theatergoers know Stoppard's tropes well enough to meet this play more than halfway. I did.
And the journey is made rather enjoyable by well-molded performances and the tightly focused, unsentimental direction of M. Craig Getting. Mal Whyte brought to the veteran with shrapnel on the brain a gnarled, stooped physicality suggesting neurological impairment. Peter DeLaurier played the lame Henri with dapper poise, indicating that the one thing remaining to him is his composure. Dan Kern initially seemed to have the least dimension until isolated moments of crumbling before your eyes, or maintaining a soldier's conviction while ceasing to make sense.
My takeaway message was the play's sense of alternative heroism - making the best of one's resources, however meager they may be. And must life be purposeful in order to be enjoyed?
Presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, through June 16. Tickets: $30-$38. 215-829-0395, www.lanterntheater.org.EndText