NORTHBRIDGE — As time can be unkindest companion of all as we get older, three seniors seek to defy and escape their companion in the poignant and humorous Tom Stoppard two-act play “Heroes” now on stage presented by Pilgrim Soul Productions in Whitinsville.
Proficiently directed by Carol Allard Vancil, the play is taken from French dramatist Gérald Sibleyras’ examination of World War I veterans in the late summer of 1959 — they are feeling stifled, trapped inside a convent hospital for military veterans.
It is here we witness three such old soldiers, Gustave (Matthew Dombroski) , Philippe (Tom Weber) and Henri (Fred D’Angelo).
Henri is well-settled in the convent hospital, but Gustave and Philippe plot a way to “escape” from their dreary existence instead of just waiting for the end to come.
The trio thoroughly engages one another from the start of the show, reminiscing, debating, discussing, gossiping, laughing, and irritating one another for a solid 90 minutes. There are many funny moments in the show, but it does not seem to fall into the technical category of a true “comedy.”
These men exist, subsist, but do not live. There is a strong feeling of ennui from the outset, almost a Beckett “Godot”-like quality as they act more as schoolchildren in detention or inmates in a sanatorium, than senior veterans. They are coming to the end of lucidity in their lives as they close in on death.
Translated and adapted for the stage by Stoppard, the single set story takes place on a beautiful garden terrace replete with French doors, a marble bench, flagstones and a stone wall, all guarded by a statue of a large dog, staring straightforward into the eyes of the audience.
Look closer at the lower half of the windows, located on either side of the French doors, and they actually seem reminiscent of bars on a jail cell. A perfect backdrop for the play’s content.
By Gérald Sibleyras. Adapted and translated by Sir Tom Stoppard. Directed by Carol Allard Vancil. Presented by Pilgrim Soul Productions at GB & Lexi Singh Performance Center at Alternatives’ historic Whitin Mill, 60 Douglas Road, Whitinsville, MA. Performances Nov. 10, 16 and 17 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. Show runs about 90 minutes with one intermission. Tickets $20, $18 seniors, $16 group rate, at 508-296-0797 or email@example.com.
With Fred D’Angelo, Matthew Dombroski, Tom Weber, Susan Nest.
At various points of the show, the dog statue is physically moved, which especially unnerves Philippe. The dog becomes so prominent being used and/or referred to continuously that it almost evolves into an additional character in the piece.
The men, vastly different in personality from one another, all seem to be foils, in one way or another, of the convent’s administrator, Sister Nurse Madeleine (Susan Nest), a shrewd and stern nun.
An extremely clever device of this added character is that Nest, who also serves as stage manager, redresses the set after each scene, in the character of Madeleine.
Matthew Dombroski is dominating as Gustave, the smug, witty and occasionally acerbic elitist of the trio. Gustave shares a vision of escaping to anywhere in the world, but mostly he longs to lead an expedition (comprised of himself, the other two ... and the dog) to the poplar trees off in the distant countryside visible from the hospital.
Weber gives an almost tranquil performance as Philippe, who constantly falls asleep in mid-conversation periodically due to some shrapnel left in his skull. When he awakens, he instantly reconnects to whatever conversation is taking place, totally supportive of his compatriots. Philippe, like Gustave, also longs to head for the distant poplar trees.
D’Angelo as Henri is the more subdued, more fastidious member of the group, not inclined to make waves within the convent hospital and, where Gustave loathes Sister Nurse Madeleine, Henri conversely shows more affection for (or fear of) her. He seems to be more accepting of his position in life than the other two and is not as inclined to undertake a mission to head for the trees.
As staged and costumed, the show might well take place at any moment in time. The use of carefully chosen sound effects and music appropriate to the period was a nicely added touch. The principal strength is in the performances and the actors do not disappoint.
There is a wonderful camaraderie among the men and a well-defined rhythm to the dialogue, but one wishes there were more backstory within the content of Stoppard’s text (or adapted text) to reveal more moments about what lives the three men led before coming to the hospital.
However, when such moments do occur, and we are witness to the trio’s separate and collective vulnerabilities, the effect can be quite funny or quite moving, making this a show not to be missed.