Edinburgh Fringe 2022
Vietnam War vet Jimmy Vanderberg faces his demons in a dramatic and touching hour about war and its effects on the participants.
Vietnam. For Americans in their 70s, that word conjures up images of killing fields, dead young American men, misguided politicians, protests in the streets. From 1955 to 1975, the U.S. conducted a highly criticized and unwinnable war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, small countries half-way across the world from America. U.S. involvement started small, but escalated, costing 58,220 American military lives and thousands more locals.
Richard Vergette has written a powerful new work about the effect of that war on the participants. The play is a compelling and heart-wrenching tale of a man who thought he was doing the right thing and now has questions about his own actions. Vergette tells the story from the viewpoint of Jimmy Vanderberg, a young man who believes that he will have a better future as a Marine than working at the local Ford Motor Company factory. Jimmy proudly enlists so that he can be a “somebody”, like his grandfather. He’s even from the same town as U.S. Civil War commander General Custer.
After 30 weeks of basic training, he meets a young Mexican man, Jesus Elverado, who was headed for the medical corps. They become friends and look out for each other. They are shipped out to war and begin to experience the horrors and atrocities. They are posted to the demilitarized zone (DMZ), known to the troops as the “dead Marine zone”. There they encounter ambushes by Viet Cong guerilla forces, who mutilate the Americans to spook them. The platoon moves into the foothills and continues the battles. Jimmy loses friends along the way but manages to survive and return to the U.S.
But what happens to those soldiers when war has ended? What is the psychological damage to those who did return? How do they process what they have seen and experienced? Shock, sadness, horror. How do the returning vets deal with the pain, which can become worse over time? Jimmy is haunted by the memories of their actions. He looks in the mirror to remember but also to try to change. These were all good men when they left for duty. They learned how to adapt to the circumstances, including killing other people and watching their friends die. What happened to them along the way?
A journalist embedded with their unit writes about the “army at war with itself” and the complexities of war. What about the men who refused to serve, the draft dodgers and deserters? An estimated30,000 draft dodgers and 4,000 military deserters fled to Canada during the war. Jimmy sees them as “deplorables” but the attitude of “my country, right or wrong” begins to shake his belief system.
Jimmy returns from war, marries his sweetheart Bernice, and settles down. He begins examining the right-wing fervour in the U.S. and the actions of his government. His emotions swing in multiple directions, as he decides to join a colleague’s son in visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. This is a very touching part of the play that can bring the audience to tears.
The show delves into the complex life of a veteran and the many questions that he asks. It examines the problems on all sides of the spectrum. Are the Marines pawns in a larger geo-political game? How can and does the government support these young men whose lives are forever changed by their horrific experiences? The pain of war and the doubting of the veterans of the value of their sacrifice are portrayed agonizingly by Vergette. He brilliantly presents Jimmy as strong yet suffering, confident yet questioning, and always likable. He leaves us with hope that the people involved in conflict can come to terms with their actions. Director Andrew Pearson and Assistant Director David MacCreedy have used the simple yet effective set to amplify the drama of the story. The music by Don Hill appropriately supports the script.
The show presents an important lesson in history. We should never forget the sacrifice made by those whose intentions were honourable, yet driven by misguided politicians. Vergette has masterfully encapsulated the many questions and emotions of the war in a gripping piece of new theatre writing that should be experienced by all generations.