Fort Worth — There’s a thrill to seeing true “pro” performers at the top of their game: a string quartet blazing, a World Cup team blowing and going.
And it’s the same with actors. In Stage West’s timely and laugh-out-loud Heroes, three of our longtime favorite actors—David Coffee, Jim Covault and Cliff Stephens—are clearly having a ball onstage, subtly playing a “keep up with me, boys” game that’s a total delight for the audience.
Playing three French “vets” of the Great War that began 100 years ago this summer, this trio of veteran actors shake playwright Gérald Sibleyras’ script for every scrap of comedy, poignancy and life. Their portraits of Henri, Philippe and Gustave are sharply drawn and detailed: they seem to know everything, physically and spiritually, about these men whose lives, once ennobled by their courage in war, are now pared down to conversations and squabbles on the terrace of a French military hospital.
And it doesn’t hurt that Sibleyras’ 2002 work was translated by the great Tom Stoppard, who may be the best “script doctor” of all time. Adding Sir Tom’s sense of wit and fun to what was, apparently, a play plenty good enough for the French (make the joke of your choice) comes under the category of Very Good Ideas. The Stoppard/Sibleyras version of Heroes—in French it was called The Wind in the Poplars—won London’s Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2006.
Director Dana Schultes lets her three players bubble away merrily, but must have had a hand in keeping the lid on the pot: though the performances are often extravagant, they never feel hammy—and that takes a watchful eye. And Jim Covault’s set design (he and Schultes are Stage West co-producers) is one of the best they’ve done in a while, a convincing recreation of old stonework walls and terrace steps. Snap a “Hello from France!” selfie in front of it, and you’ll make friends jealous.
Coffee’s character Henri is the most sociable and sensible of these wounded warriors. Hampered by a cane and a bad leg, he’s still an enthusiast who dreams of pretty girls—and tips his hat to them on his walks away from the grounds. It’s a charming role, and Coffee inhabits it with great, how do you say, élan and verve. Stephens’ amusingly combative Gustave is Henri’s curmudgeonly opposite: a war hero who won every medal France could give, his life is down to “room, terrace, tepid soup, beddy-bye.” Gustave is terrified of the world and people outside the walls, and confines himself to the terrace this trio defends against the rest of the hospital’s “cocoa slurping” residents.
Gustave, in fact, insists they’re a quartet, not a trio: his head count includes the stone statue of a dog (a Churchillian pug) he’s come to treat as a pet—and refuses to leave behind when the vets start hatching an escape plan.
They have to go, and quickly, too: Covault’s Philippe thinks he’s about to be “croaked” by a birthday-obsessed nun. (It’s a long story.) Philippe has a piece of shrapnel in his head, and regularly keels over in mid-sentence. “He’ll go off on a comma” someday, says Henri mournfully. Perpetually off-balance and “pitching about,” Philippe is the peacemaker who softens the others’ edges and enthusiasms, and his thoughts and advice are surprisingly canny. Like all of them, he’s more than he seems, with a history of wartime bravery and romantic adventures—and a sister he loves but never sees (letting Gustave forge answers to her letters). Covault’s distinctive voice and face have always served him well onstage—but this role gives him a physical comedy workout that’s fun to watch.
After that, to say more would be saying too much. The play has echoes of Waiting for Godot and Waiting for God (the British TV series about residents marking time in what used to be called an “old folks home”), and you’ll have to see it to find out whether the threesome’s dream of a last adventure takes them up the hill—to the soldierly row of poplars that overlook the cemetery—across the seas to French Indochina (it’s 1959, before we called it Vietnam), back to the terrace—or, who knows?
But in any event, and wherever they go, Heroes is a funny and touching trip for the rest of us.