In his notes about the play, director Steven J. Satta-Fleming writes that The Soldier Dreams "is no more a play about AIDS than The Wizard of Oz is the story of a cyclone," and it's interesting how AIDS and homosexuality, while important catalysts, are both omnipresent and barely there in this beautiful, sad, hilarious, heartwarming offering that Iron Crow Theatre doesn't just produce but conquers.
It's a small play (or maybe compact is a better descriptor) in that it requires precisely seven actors, one of whom lies in a makeshift hospital bed for the entire performance, and the action takes place almost entirely within approximately 36 square feet in, around and on the bed. Here, we see the dance that evolves as the surviving members of a family, David's family in this case, contemplate and prepare for a loved one's imminent demise. David, on the other hand, dances about his head, conjuring up specific memories from a time before his illness left him in a terminal coma. Presumably, these recollections reveal the point-a tryst with a fatalistic German medical student-at which he contracted HIV and his life changed forever, but it's never 100 percent clear.
In the meantime, his family members quarrel, berate each other, roll their eyes at each other, turn to each other for support, envelop each other in tenderness and, through superbly executed monologues, express their love for David and recall their happiest memories with him. Every single one of them-both sisters Tish and Judi, brother-in-law Sam and longtime lover Richard-says David would rather be dancing (and really, wouldn't anybody in that state?) and that he or she taught David sign language so they could communicate secretly, a bond all their own.
So it becomes clear that David is good at being able to fake learning sign language for the first time; even the German student-from whose line, "Even when the soldier dreams, the war goes on," the play takes its title-makes a go at teaching David sign language. It also quickly becomes clear that David took full advantage of the nonexclusive relationship that Richard admits they've maintained, sometimes manipulating tensions within the family to do so. While his family members recall the barely living David with fondness, the audience learns he was less than virtuous, even selling a family heirloom to squander the money on a three-week blitz in Europe (during which he left Richard at home).
What's interesting is Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor's insight into how the living remember the dead (or the nearly dead), forgetting the negative and grasping at the shiniest moments, the ones that made them feel good. And across the cast, the actors are to be lauded for their ability to bring this to life. Of particular note are the "memory" scenes featuring David (Paul Wissman) and the German student (Rich Buchanan), performed as monologues that are two halves of a dialogue. The actors never face each other-not until one of the final scenes-and yet the sense of dialogue, conversation, interaction is pervasive.
The same is true for a challenging scene performed flawlessly by Tish (Marsha Becker) and Richard (Joseph Ritsch), who each complain about the other simultaneously, often saying the exact same thing at the same time. In a scene such as this, timing is critical, and the actors are exceedingly well practiced and successful.
As David slips from life, the play slips into the metaphysical, exploring the gray area between the realm of the living and that of the dead. Still, the performance never loses touch with reality, and it closes with a scene depicting David as all prefer to remember him: sparkling in the light of a disco ball and dancing to his heart's content, reminding us that even when performances delve into sad, serious subject matter, they can still joyfully extoll the beauty of life.
Photos © Katie Ellen Simmons-Barth, courtesy of Iron Crow Theatre.