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A CurtainUp Review

My Son Jack
By Jana J. Monji

David Haig's My Son Jack has been given a sensitive production in its American premiere at the International City Theatre in Long Beach. ICT artistic director Shashin Desai deftly guides the outstanding cast. The emotional flow never falters into maudlin sentimentality and instead provides thought-provoking comparisons between yesteryear's wars and today's.

Haig based his play on a 1916 Rudyard Kipling poem, "My Boy Jack" , in which he poignantly mourns the disappearance and death of his son, John who was called Jack. The India born Kipling was the first Englishman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. His stories celebrated the heroism of British colonial soldiers in India and what used to be called Burma. He believed in the superiority of the British rule without really questioning the basic nature of imperialism itself. But times have changed and poems like "Gunga Din" and "The White Man's Burden" are no longer read as romantic or humanistic but as products of a by-gone time.

As My Son Jack begins in 1913, Kipling (Randy Kovitz) strongly expresses his belief that it is a young man's duty to go to France and defend England from possible invasion in what would be called World War I. To not join would be nothing short of cowardice and unpatriotic shirking of one's duty. Yet his young son, Jack (Travis Vaden), is so near-sighted as to be legally blind and fails several physicals. Using his influence Kipling secures him a commission in the Irish Guards. Hair imagines how the soldiers greeted the privileged young man who was neither Irish nor Catholic and takes us into the trenches, and gives us a picture of the young man's isolation on his last day -- a day raining so hard that he can hardly see with his glasses on.

Haig also follows Kipling as he uses his influence in a vain attempt to find his son's body. We see him interviewing Irish guardsmen to find out more about his son's fate It takes until the middle of Act II to learn Jack's fate when one of Jack's men, Guardsman Bowe (Brett Elliott), gives a devastating portrait of modern warfare.

The latter part of the second act deals with the reconciliation Kipling and the daughter from whom he's been estranged. The occasion is her wedding which coincides with the rumblings of World War II. Even then Kipling never sees Germany's attempts to conquer Europe as similar to the English in India.

Haig's piece touches on the ceaseless heartache of the families of soldiers classified as missing in action. Jack's body was actually found and identified in 1992, 56 years after Kipling's death.

As director, Desai doesn't pass judgment on Kipling and develops fully fleshed portraits of a family broken apart by war and circumstances. Randy Kovitz's Kipling has the bold stateliness of a man who is admirable yet oppressive toward his young son. Travis Vaden's pale face exudes an earnestness of a young boy who both wants to please his overbearing father and escape from his father's influence into his own sphere. As Kipling's daughter, Erin Cummings is the voice of reason, intelligent and yet ultimately forgiving and perhaps a little bit too modern. Gillian Doyle as Kipling's wife, Carrie, exquisitely portrays the conflicting emotions of a mother and a wife.

Brett Elliot's nervous, unfocused ruin of a young man attempting to excuse his moment of cowardice is easily the most memorable moment with Doyle's portrayal of Carrie's collapse into calm bitterness completing the portrait of war's domestic casualties.

Listening to Kipling's speeches about benign colonialism one can't help but compare it to the heroic rhetoric surrounding the war in Iraq. Germany did invade France and threaten the shores of England, however, and Kipling's motivations were far from a pre-emptive strike.

This ICT production features a loving attention to details--from Don Llewellyn's well-appointed drawing room to his representation of the dismal trenches of WWI to Kim DeShazo's lovely costume design to the nuanced performances. The result is the poignant story of a family, a vivid evocation of the tragedy war was for them and is to others today.

MY SON JACK Playwright: David Haig
Director: Shashin Desai
Cast: Erin Cummings (Elsie Kipling), Gillian Doyle (Carrie Kipling), Brett Elliott (Guardsman Bowe and Major Sparks), Randy Kovitz (Rudyard Kipling), Tylyer Moore (Guardsman Doyle and Col. Rory Pottle), Travis Vaden (John Kipling), Donan Whelan (Guardsman McHugh and Mr. Frankland).
Set Design: Don Llewellyn
Costume Design: Kim DeShazo
Dialect Coach: Gunther Jensen
Light and Sound Design: Bill Georges
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Running dates: September 2 through 26, 2004
. My Boy Jack, International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. $30-$38. (562) 436-4610.
Reviewed by Jana J. Monji on September 5, 2004.
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