Jim Stowell assumes the role of American war veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien in this theatrical re-telling of his famous book “The Things They Carried,” which recounts his experiences being drafted into the Vietnam War. An ornate wooden chair and a wooden stool are the centerpieces of Stowell’s stage, where he regales the audience with a story of tragedy, loss, zero happy endings, a dose of humor and, in spite of it all, hope.
Stowell’s acting is an emotional powerhouse. Every character in the play—from Elroy, a cabin owner who shelters O’Brien when he tries to escape the draft, to Kiowa, a soldier who becomes O’Brien’s best friend—is personified by Stowell with a fantastic vocal range. What’s more impressive, however, is just how animated Stowell’s face can be. When O’Brien closes in on the Canadian border, and the guilt of abandoning the war and betraying his friends and family overwhelms him, Stowell’s head reels back and his face cringes as his cheeks turn as red as a ripe tomato. In that moment, it was as if all the regret and pain O’Brien felt those many years ago entered every pore in Stowell’s face.
The storytelling is also on another level. O’Brien’s memoir is a natural fit for such an intimate theater setting. Stowell hops from story to story, a dimming light marking the transitions, giving the audience only a few moments to absorb each heartbreaking narrative before proceeding to the next.
In O’Brien’s platoon, every soldier steeled their heart and numbed their senses with three simple words: “there it is.” If they ever stumbled across a dead body, the soldiers would stare at it, say “there it is,” and wave it off. For as hardened and boisterous as O’Brien’s peers want to seem, nearly each of them has a breakdown in response to one horror or another. Kiowa is a devout Christian who always carries a copy of the New Testament with him (he even uses it as a pillow), and when he realizes how unchristian his desensitization to death is, he has an existential crisis in a foxhole with O’Brien.
When O’Brien returns to Vietnam with his daughter years later, he submerges himself in a river, finally allows himself to break down and splashes about. His tears are witnessed by a farmer who stares at him knowingly, and in that moment, they feel understood. They both feel the trauma of war, but still move forward with the small solace that they’re not alone.
“The Things They Carried” is a powerful reminder of the consequences of war. Years have given way to decades, and the scars left by the Vietnam War fade, but never disappear. Jim Stowell reminds us that war is more than statistics and victories. It’s about the men and women whose lives were forever changed, and the things they continue to carry.
“The Things They Carried” Written and Performed by Jim Stowell Sept. 29 at 2pm, Oct. 2 at 9pm Tech: Loren Niemi Photos combined: courtesy of the production United Solo 2018 Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street New York City
CHRISTOPHER POPPLE is a Monmouth University graduate and budding reviewer.