Signature in Arlington, VA, is opening its 15th season with the rock-infused musical, billed as "an intimate, searing look at war through the eyes of the men who fought and died in Vietnam."
Joining Florence Lacey, who plays the mother of a soldier killed in action, will be Kurt Boehm, Joshua Davis, Clifton A. Duncan, Charles Hagerty, Josh Lefkowitz and Helen Hayes Award-winner Stephen Gregory Smith.
Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer directs the musical, based on a book, "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam."
"Artistic license combined with a strong foundation of actual letters and poems written home by soldiers to friends and family was the basis for all seven characters in the show, but military ranks, names and final outcome of the show's characters have been altered," according to Signature production notes.
"Signature presented a free reading of One Red Flower last fall as part of our STAGES series and I knew immediately that this show must be done on the Signature stage and done now," said Schaeffer. "War is ugly. War is painful. War never ends on the battlefield. As we watch again the sight of American soldiers deployed to foreign lands, these haunting letters remind us that the pain of war reaches far beyond the combat zone. We remember that the horrors of battle touch us all. I can only hope that this musical inspires conversations and sparks debates in the days and weeks ahead. One of the characters in One Red Flower asks, 'What are we fighting for?' We find there is no simple answer." A presentation of the earlier version of the show (Letters From 'Nam) at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's Festival of New Musicals in New York City had theatregoers in tears as the mother figure in the piece invited the audience to find a corner in their hearts and memories for the men and women lost in the Vietnam era.
At Signature, Kurt Boehm is infantryman Private First Class Alan Chisholm, a character based on the letters of Air Force Major Edward Alan Brudno; Joshua Davis is career solider Sergeant George McDuffy, based on Sp/4 George T. Olsen who arrived in Vietnam in August 1969; Clifton A. Duncan as the officer First Lieutenant Kenny Rutherford, inspired by the letters of Sp/4 Kenneth E. Peeples, Jr. and his parents Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth E. Peeples, Sr.; Charles Hagerty is helicopter pilot Warrant Officer Michael Sandberg, a character centered on the poems of Michael Davis O'Donnell, a captain with the 52nd Aviation Battalion; Josh Lefkowitz plays medic Specialist Fifth Class Marion Johnson, a character inspired by the letters of Marion Lee "Sandy" Kempner, who, prior to his death, wrote to his great-aunt about a lone "rather distinguished looking plant with soft red flowers waving gaily in the downpour"; Stephen Gregory Smith, who won the Helen Hayes Award for Signature's 110 in the Shade, plays company clerk Specialist Fourth Class Billy "Spanky" Bridges, son of Eleanor Bridges, and inspired by Sp/5 William R. Stocks, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade.
Billy's mother, Eleanor Bridges, is the sole female role (played by Florence Lacey) in One Red Flower and is based on Mrs. Eleanor Wimbish, the mother of William R. Stocks. Mrs. Wimbish leaves letters to her son under his name at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. For example, "Dear Bill, Today is Feb. 13, 1984. I came to this black wall again to see and touch your name, and as I do I wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother's heart. A heart broken 15 years ago today, when you lost your life in Vietnam. ...They tell me the letters I write to you and leave here at this memorial are waking others up to the fact that there is still much pain left, after all these years, from the Vietnam War. But this I know. I would rather to have had you for 21 years, and all the pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all."
The musical is "set to a score based in the rock-n-roll rhythms of the period," and "compels, informs and entertains with a glimpse into the often hellish, sometimes light-hearted experiences of our American soldiers."
Author-lyricist-composer Paris Barclay began work on this show in 1986 after he read "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam." In developing the script, Barclay tried to stay true to the words of the real-life soldiers. "Ninety-five percent of what you will hear are their own words — their optimism and patriotism, their fear and longing, their anti war and pro-war stances," Barclay said in production notes. "I have tried to voice them as fairly and as free of commentary as possible."
Barclay is a two-time Emmy Award winning director of "NYPD Blue," "The West Wing" and "ER." He also co created and directed the primetime drama "City of Angels," which won the NAACP Image Award for Best Drama Series, and episodes of shows as diverse as "Cold Case" and "Clueless," "Sliders" and "The Shield," "American Dreams" and "Fastlane."
For the theatre, he wrote the book, music and lyrics for On Hold With Music (produced in workshop at the Manhattan Theater Club with Jason Alexander) and Almos' a Man (based on a Richard Wright short story and produced at SoHo Rep). He wrote music for and co-directed last year's Order My Steps, a gospel musical at the Cornerstone Theater Company. He is currently the writer, director and executive producer of a new pilot for Showtime entitled "Hate."
One Red Flower's design team includes Eric Grims (setting), Jenn Miller (costumes), Chris Lee (lighting), Tony Angelini (sound) and Michael Clark (projections).
For information, call (703) 218-6500 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.