Reviewed by Lynn Houston
Runs until October 15th, 2017 at The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd Street, New York
In the middle of Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, the character Marlow faces a narrative crisis when he finds it difficult to reconcile the information about Jim’s life he has gathered from a variety of sources. He is sure of one thing, however, regarding Jim’s travels, “that for each of us, going home must be like going to render an account.” J.A. Moad, in his richly layered play Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home, solves the narrative confusion at the heart of Conrad’s classic by providing us with three linked heroes that each tell their own stories in different contexts. The result involves the same trope of “homecoming as accounting” referenced by Marlow in Lord Jim, which Moad employs with great skill to deliver a message about the bitter loss of ideals among working-class men.
Outside Paducah is being billed as an exploration of the effects of PTSD on returning soldiers, and it certainly accomplishes this objective with a coherent artistic vision comprised of cultural sensitivity and historical grounding. The play traces an arc of U.S. military service from the Civil War, to World War II, through Vietnam, and Iraq. The secondary story lines reinforce the main themes in the lives of the main characters: in Act II “Cairo,” the father begging for a loan recalls an incident at a school near his son’s—a boy who opened fire on a prayer circle, killing three girls. Similarly, the images projected during the play contribute to its historical complexity—a newspaper headline flashes on the wall: “JFK shot by sniper.” The play broadens a discussion of PTSD to the larger issue of gun culture and toxic masculinity.
However, Moad’s Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home is so much more than a play about returning combat veterans. It’s about predatory capitalism and the military industrial complex. It’s about race riots and abandoned steel towns. These powder-keg issues of race and class are the wars that are fought “at home” by the returning veterans in Moad’s play and by all working-class people. War, here, is defined in a broad sense that includes social and economic policies that seek to oppress and harm citizens. In the play, soldiers are not the only ones who have to “believe that we’re all in this fight together.” Any working-class American has to believe the same lie in order to vote for policies that are not in their best interests. Clearly, when a disproportionate amount of our veterans come from working-class families, enticed by the G.I. Bill as a way to pay for college, we are not “all in this fight together.” It’s this moment of reckoning that operates as a strong link between all three of Moad’s characters: the young boy in Act I whose family is losing their house because the V.A. has failed to properly compensate them for his father’s PTSD, an older veteran in Act II who cannot get a business loan from a racist banker, and a middle-aged veteran in Act III suffering from PTSD and a substance abuse problem whose childhood home has burned up after a meth lab in its basement explodes. These characters represent men who have been used up and then cast aside by a system that takes advantage of their work ethic and ideals but that won’t enable them to get ahead financially. These are all men who are “homeless,” not in the sense of living on the streets, but because they lack a “heart home” due to a loss of faith in the core ideals with which they were raised: the American Dream—that through hard work and determination they could do anything they set their minds to, become anything they dreamed of. Instead, we see them as Moad brilliantly presents them onstage: hollow shells of men with little left to live for, with little hope of ever finding beauty in this world. Like the boy in Act I who is bitten by mosquitos as he talks to us from his porch, these men have been sucked dry by a system of exploitation, one that has sent them to war but does not take care of them when they come back home. In a panel discussion after today’s performance, James Moad talked about the impetus for telling these stories: “they help us to see the tragedy of war unfolding around us [. . .] in the minds of men who can’t seem to reconcile the sacrifices they have made for a nation that finds them to be disposable.”
Moad gives us a metaphor for this situation at the beginning of the play, that of a “ghost,” the haunting presence of someone who has died but who lingers on, replaying over and over the scene of his own death. In this way, his characters are like the walking dead. And the question raised by the play is how do we confront the haunting presences we, as a country, are afraid of? The advice given to the boy in Act I is to avoid looking at a ghost because “if he sees you lookin’ at him then he’s bound to follow you.” If you watch Outside Paducah, it follows you home.
J.A. Moad’s vocal nuances throughout the play make this work voice-rich. And that’s the point—refusing to look at ghosts, refusing to hear veterans’ voices, will not make the problem go away; it only makes it worse. Moad’s Outside Paducah teaches us how to look at the ghosts we have been complicit in creating and how to listen to them with the patience, respect, and empathy they deserve.
Buy your ticket here: http://www.poetictheater.com/event/outside-paducah-the-wars-at-home/
Lynn Houston is a poet, college professor, and editor-in-chief of Five Oaks Press. Visit her website for more information: lynnmhouston.com