Directed by Dana Schultes
Set Designer – Jim Covault
Lighting Designer – Michael O’Brien
Costume Designer – Michael Robinson/Dallas Costume Shoppe
Properties/Set Décor – Lynn Lovett
David Coffee – Henri
Cliff Stephens - Gustave
Jim Covault – Philippe
Reviewed Performance 7/12/2014
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Three elderly men, sitting on a stone terrace – reading, nonchalantly chatting about the day, dreaming of days gone by – not the most exciting of scenarios, but played by three of our region’s most accomplished actors, the play Heroes takes on a funnier and more radiant luster than the play itself will ever be alone.
Set in 1959 France in a retirement home for First World War veterans, Gérald Sibleyras’ 2003 play, Le Vent Des Peupliers, was then translated into English and adapted by Tom Stoppard two years later, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2006. The title’s literal translation means The Wind in the Poplars, a subject brought up several times in the play by Gustave. To not confuse it with the children’s book, The Wind in the Willows, both playwrights agreed on Heroes as the English title.
Called a “Parisian boulevard comedy”, the plot is rather mundane and repetitive. In a series of afternoons/evenings, the three men – Gustave, the idealist, Henri, the pragmatist, and Philippe, the fence sitter – live out their last years in the home, searching for something to occupy their minds and souls, and plotting an elaborate escape from the monotony of their days. Sounds rather grim, doesn’t it?
But it’s far from that, all due to Dana Schultes’ direction and the three gifted men who take on the roles of these “mature” Frenchmen. I would love to have seen the amazing Richard Griffiths, John Hurt and Ken Stott play these roles back in 2005-early 2006 as I’m certain they too put more humor and comedy into the roles than originally written, with the help of Tom Stoppard’s changes no doubt.
Schultes wisely allowed her three actors to “lead” the play as it were, knowing it would be in competent hands. And what a lovely setting to place them in - a small, raised, stone terrace with wall fountain, sections of grass, rustic stone walls, door frame and walkway. Jim Covault’s design and Lynn Lovett’s fine detailing, with flowers coming up through the stone walkway and moss creeping in between the stone wall cracks, was all that was needed to imply it had all been there for some time. A bench, a wrought iron chair, a water faucet with hose . . . and a stone bulldog . . . rounded out the setting, and one could feel the coolness of the stone which was hard to distinguish from Styrofoam; an excellent job all around, especially when so close to the audience.
Equally important to establish both the time period and the men’s personalities were the clothes picked by Michael Robinson. I loved that he kept the three in more conservative, somewhat formal attire for these retired men at leisure. All wore white dress shirts, Gustave in either full suits or suit slacks and fitted button down sweater, and always a tie. Henri echoed a more professorial 50’s look with slacks, argyle pullover sweater vests and bow tie, while Philippe made a more casual, carefree impression in slacks, suspenders, too-large, button down sweaters, and tie of course. Robinson set the demeanor of each man to a tee, and his choices were simple, astute, and perfect.
Michael O’Brien’s lighting cast a late afternoon/evening sunset glow onto the back walls of the terrace, radiating the last warmth of the day onto the cool stonework. Noontime hours were illuminated in a hot, general wash over the stage. All scene changes came with easy fade downs, and the only lighting that jarred one away from the lovely terrace was the blue lighting held to guide the actors offstage; the curtain was held open wide, showing the crew member and spoiling the play’s ambience.
Beyond a nice set, costumes, and lighting, it is essential to Heroes that it be cast with highly-competent actors that fully understand the nuances of the characters, and can find the subtle but distinctive humor between the lines. Stoppard’s witticisms aside, this could be a real downer of a play if not handled somewhat tongue in cheek. Director Schultes obviously got the joke and her actors took up the reins and ran with it.
Not often does a theatregoer get to see several older actors in the principal roles. Yes, Shakespeare has Lear and his Fool or Gloucester, Beckett has Vladimir and Estragon Waiting for Godot, but in more contemporary times, I cannot recall a play using only older men in the cast. It was such a joy and so exciting to watch these actors playing off each other with such grand aplomb.
Cliff Stephens plays Gustave, the once commanding and expeditionary soldier, now relegated to an almost monastic life of routine. He’s become complacent enough to take up friendship with the terrace’s bulldog statue, but the restlessness of the old Gustave still simmers underneath. Stephen’s chiseled facial expressions and granite attitude made for some comedic moments, mainly because they resonated Gustave’s frustration with his “inmates”. But those same expressions and frustration also spoke of Gustave’s inability to leave the home. Stephens’ posture when standing or sitting was always erect from Gustave’s years in the military, and his voice reminded of a drill sergeant. A bit of the straight man within the trio, the humor in Stephens’ character came more with his intense authoritativeness which blended with the other characters like oil and water.
Henri, on the other hand, more easily acclimated to the home, and readily knows all the comings and goings of his fellow veterans. Jovial and content, Henri chooses to accept his new lifestyle and doesn’t relish change. David Coffee is about the cuddliest of actors I can think of, so his portrayal of Henri was as if written for him. Bespectacled, with a cane, bow tie and warm sweater vest, he’s every person’s dream granddad. Playing Henri with an intelligent wit but much less forthcoming than Gustave, Coffee was the perfect foil to Stephens’ character. And he moved pretty deftly for keeping one leg stiff and using a cane. Having seen Coffee play many mild-mannered characters, it was with great surprise and exhilaration to see and hear him blast Gustave and Philippe for some indiscretion, going all red-faced and blustery. And when Henri finally decided to take part in the threesome’s secret plot (no spoiler here), Coffee’s sharp, comedic ability beautifully came into play as Henri attempts to take over Gustave’s self-appointed leader position; the oil and water blend again, with hilarious results.
Philippe is a bit of a third wheel, the odd cog, and it doesn’t help that he’s hindered with a wartime head injury that keeps him unaware or unsure of things going on around him, another frustration for Gustave. A gentle soul with a bit of naughtiness in him, Philippe most reminds of the tragedy of war and its leftover victims. However, Jim Covault mustered every bit of humor and comedy out of his character that could possibly be found, and he did it spectacularly. I will admit I have not seen many of Covault’s other performances, but I was so completely enthralled with his interpretation of the wounded Philippe that I wondered how much of his physicality was the character’s and how much was his. Covault stumbled, wobbled and swayed his tall, lanky body all over the stage, and his eyes faded out or rolled back almost to the point of looking catatonic. I actually became afraid he would fall down the steps or off the terrace rise. He kept tucking or curling those long legs under or around the chair like Ian McKellen or Steve Carell’s cartoon character in Despicable Me. The subtlety of his comedic timing, the hint of humor here and there in his voice or mannerism, his outrageous body language, all were acting techniques that paid off exquisitely.
The play being set in France, all I can say is thank you Dana Schultes for having the men use subtle but respectable English accents and not going all Pepé Le Pew on us.
Sibleyras and Stoppard’s script is not the best play around – a little thin on plot – but it’s supplies the rare opportunity to watch three great actors simply do their thing without extraneous set changes, costuming or pretention. That makes Heroes at Stage West Theatre a must see, especially for actors desiring a master class in acting, with simultaneous laughing out loud as the bonus.
Stage West Theatre
821/823 W. Vickery Blvd.
Fort Worth, TX 76104
Plays through August 10th
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday – Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 3:00 pm
Ticket prices are $28.00 Thursday/Sunday, and $32.00 Friday/Saturday.
Seniors (65+) and military receive a $6.00 discount any performance. Students/Under 30 tickets are $16.00 for all performances.
Pay What You Can tickets may be purchased one hour before curtain, if available, for two performances of each show of the regular season. Student Rush tickets for full-time students may be purchased thirty minutes before curtain for $5.00, if available.
Prix Fixe Friday: Every Friday after the first Friday, $39.00 per person buys dinner (gratuity included) and the play (does not include alcohol or appetizers).
For any other information and to purchase tickets, go to www.stagewest.org or call their box office at 817-784-9378 (STG-WEST).