Moving From the Trenches to Turmoil at Home
‘The Hero’ Reflects on War and Life in 1921
There’s a lot to watch in “The Hero.” But the real action is under the surface. This exceptional revival of Gilbert Emery’s 1921 play is steeped in subtext and repressed emotions: confusion, regret, desire and despair. Here, the silent moments are among the most moving.
Set just after World War I, the story opens in the home of Hester (Casandera Lollar) and Andrew (Kevin Bernard), who scrape by as they support their son (Michael Fader), Andrew’s harping mother (Emily Jon Mitchell) and a refugee (Becca Ballenger).
“It seems to me that lately, everywhere I go, everything I do, I just find pretty things thrown in my face; only I can’t have them,” Hester says, almost to herself. She longs “to be something, something that counts more in the world — I can’t express it.”
Oswald (Christian Rozakis), Andrew’s long-lost brother, returns from the war to reunite with his family and atone for his past wrongdoings. Soon they are all under stress in the close quarters; the tension grows, even as the house remains quiet.
Unlike many American plays of the time, which feature bombastic characters and oversize plots, “The Hero” looks inward. Emery’s script is remarkably nuanced, filled with gray areas and ambiguities. There are echoes of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” from 1890, and O’Neill’s “Beyond the Horizon,” from 1920.
“Something’s wrong, somewhere,” Hester says to Oswald after he recalls his time in battle. “Life is wrong, I guess.”
Theatergoers eager for shouting should search elsewhere, and, to be sure, there are a few drawn-out sections in the play’s 2 hours 10 minutes. Still, “The Hero” is an actor’s play, in the best sense. There’s much here for a cast to explore. (It’s no surprise that Emery himself appeared onstage and in more than 80 films, and was a war veteran.)
Ms. Lollar is wonderful, hinting at feelings as a way of amplifying them. Mr. Bernard gives depth to a role that could come off as slight. He contrasts effortlessly with the sly Mr. Rozakis, who may or may not be the hero of the title. Ms. Mitchell, Ms. Ballenger and the young Mr. Fader also never strike a false note. They are directed by Alex Roe on his smart set at the Metropolitan Playhouse.
Several questions linger at the end of “The Hero”: How do you judge a bad person who does a good thing, and vice versa? Is there nobility in every struggle? It’s the mark of a fine production when the play stays with you even after it leaves the stage.