It’s About Time

Jun 30, 2016

Lisa Loomer’s Roe and Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone surmount a similar challenge: how to bring dramatic form to a sprawling, complicated decade of American History.  The 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion and triggered resistance that reverberates to this day. The fall of Saigon in 1975 after over a decade of brutal conflict in Southeast Asia drove waves of refugees to the United States.  To wrest the multiple, often contradictory human truths from these events, Loomer and Nguyen have developed sharply different approaches to time. 

Attorney Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew, center) and her assistant Linda Coffee (Susan Lynskey, right) need a client to help them challenge the Texas law prohibiting abortion—and find one in the unpredictable Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner, left).
Credit Jenny Graham | Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Premiering in the Bowmer theatre, the eighth commission in the OSF’s American Revolutions project, Roe, moves steadily forward through the first meeting of Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner), a socially marginal, emotionally damaged young woman in search of an abortion, and Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew), already visualizing a niche in history as the youngest attorney to argue a case before the Supreme Court. “The law takes time,” Weddington warns McCorvey, as the latter’s delivery date approaches, and the play’s structure traces the law’s chronology in often granular detail. Beyond the actual ruling, the shifts in political climate will later stage such counter-measures as Operation Rescue in 1990’s and Norma’s ultimate conversion to Christian fundamentalism.

Do not, however, brace for docudrama. Loomer is gifted with the ability to dig into the facts of a social issue and unearth the human comedy. Meanwhile, director Bill Rauch deploys his genius for colliding frames. History in Roe unfolds within a presentational world: characters comment on the action and quote from their own obituaries. Sarah has written a book about Roe; Norma, it turns out, has published two factually inconsistent memoirs. Frequent debates interrupt the record of the past as each tries retrospectively to control it. Anti-choice Rev. Flip Benham delivers an inspirational speech; Norma, on the sidelines, presses the mute on her remote, leaving him to flap his mouth soundlessly. Few facts in this story are left standing unqualified.  The result is a riveting, poignant, quixotic panorama of human impulse and aspiration.

Bruner’s Norma is volatile, needy, skidding around in a story she’s making up and revising on the fly. Agnew’s Sarah is pitch-perfect in her opposition of aloof intellect to Norma’s survival instinct, her poise to Norma’s pathos.  The remaining twenty-six characters are played with brilliant differentiation by ten actors, supported by designer Raquel Barreto’s gift for suiting costume to personality and decade. 

Playwright Nguyen labels Vietgone a sex comedy about the meeting and courtship of Quang and Tong, his parents--a story about love, not war. Don’t believe him. The Thomas Theatre reverberates with the explosive, disruptive energy of the Vietnam War in every scene. Besides tearing the lives of Qui’s parents apart, thus launching the action, it shreds stylistic decorum and dislocates time.  Mirroring, then, war’s disorienting effects, the play begins outside a camp in Arkansas for Vietnamese refugees, then lurches into the past, to shuttle among timeframes and locations before finally leaping forty years to resolve itself today. 

Quang (James Ryen) and Tong (Jeena Yi) want to “make it home,” but the same words can express opposite goals. For Quang, a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese army, “home” is Saigon and the wife and children he was forced to leave behind. For proto-feminist Tong, “it” is the United States, where she’s intent on belonging. The emergency airlift offered her flight from an impending and oppressive Vietnamese marriage, even if she was stuck with bringing her nagging mother Huong (Amy Kim Waschke) along. 

The Thomas Theatre reverberates with the explosive, disruptive energy of the Vietnam War in every scene.

Scene One finds Quang and his war buddy Nhan (Will Dao) on a motorcycle odyssey from Arkansas to California, where Quang plans to hop a flight back to Vietnam. Certain flashbacks introduce Quang’s worried wife, Tong’s clingy fiancé, and her beloved kid brother, none of whom made it out of Saigon. Another catches Tong in the grips of a nightmare revealing her brother’s violent death. Afterward, to numb the pain, she heats up her casual flirtation with Quang and proposes sex. His enthusiastic acceptance ends the first act.

The tangled chronology of Act Two seems designed to undercut any promise in the union of Quang and Tong. Tong has attracted an American, Bobby, a sentimental romantic like her abandoned fiancé. Though Quang defeats Bobby in a Battle of Boomboxes, a previous scene reminds us that Quang is careening down the road to California leaving Tong behind, determined like Odysseus, to reach home. It will take exquisite insights on the part of Nhan and Huong to reverse the lovers’ diverging trajectories in the nick of time.

A last, breath-taking chronological leap lands Vietgone in the 21st century, with the playwright-son interviewing an aged Quang, transformed from the grinning adventurer of the past to a waggish old man. The son’s inquiries focus on the Vietnam War; the father’s answers recall pleasure at the birth of his son. Dragged finally from the personal to the political, Quang flares into an angry monologue on the theme that’s been flickering throughout the play—the acute difference between the Vietnamese perspective on the war and those offered by American history. It was a civil war, Quang insists, not something “to choose or not choose to be in.” Nor can he ever regard it as a mistake.

The attraction between Tong (Jeena Yi) and Quang (James Ryen) is strong and immediate.
Credit Jenny Graham | Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Directed with in-your-face energy by May Adrales, Vietgone defies easy classification. Sex, and love, and friendship unfold against a rambunctious mash-up of song (rap) and dance (ninja fighting and disco). Meanwhile, war serves as a sort of antagonist for the survivors who have landed in the States. Dealing with the losses it has inflicted deepens the love and loyalty among them and pushes them to wisdom.

Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is a middle-grade fantasy adventure, Behind the Waterfall (www.fuzepublishing.com)