Courtesy Madison Street Theatre

The current all-male production of Surging Films & Theatrics’ Tracers, at Madison Street Theatre, is a hard-edged, powerful show set during the Vietnam War. It was written and first produced in 1980 before such subject matter was considered commercially viable. This was before so many 1980s films like Platoon; Full Metal Jacket; Born on the 4th of July; Good Morning, Vietnam and others grabbed the public’s attention.

I had never seen a production of this gritty play before, and, frankly, I wondered if such an early treatment of the Southeast Asian war would still hold up, even though it was critically acclaimed back in the day. What could we see or learn that wasn’t long ago drilled into us about that war being fought a half century ago? 

But the material seems to have lost none of its original punch. This ground-breaking show is both moving and relevant. In fact, this may now be a ripe time for this drama to be reborn, with so many young men and women coming home again, this time from battle in the Middle East.

Tracers is staged in the intimate Studio performance space at Madison Street Theatre with a limited budget. But the production does a solid job of establishing the nightmare of Vietnam. 

The ensemble cast is top-notch and the directors, Billy Surges and Katie Meyers, effectively pull the various strands (action scenes, monologues, and all) into a solid identity. They pack the production with movement and energy.

Tracers is not about the rightness or wrongness of what America did in Vietnam, still a brutally controversial war. This treatment is a daring, thought-provoking kind of group confessional that was written by John DiFusco with an ensemble of Vietnam veterans who doubled as its original cast in the 1980 production. Often the soldiers will break the “4th wall” and speak directly to the audience. 

The title refers to “tracer” bullets that provided a bright glow, illuminating nighttime warfare during the Vietnam War. Figuratively, this often harrowing drama shows how these young men’s lives were forever affected by the horrors they witness and participated in. Those who survived the war and came home would bear emotional wounds and anger the rest of their lives.

This production might be rated R if it were a movie. There is simulated violence, drug usage, partial nudity, and non-stop strong language. I’m certain there is not another play in which the “F word” is used more often.

The sadistic, bullying drill sergeant, played by Patrick McGrath, puts the greenhorn recruits through grueling training, attempting to change his scared young “maggots” into a killing machine. But as he points out, these raw recruits represent the unwilling and undertrained doing the impossible for the ungrateful. He is aware that 80% of these guys will become targets.

All the young soldiers sport nicknames. Billy Surges, also one of the directors, plays Dinky Dau. He is especially touching as he gets a sucker punch of a “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend back home. Absence definitely did not make her heart grow fonder.

Habu (Andrew Eady) is the sole African American in the platoon, a Chicago native who takes his mission seriously.

The Professor (Seth Elisha Harmon) is a bookworm who keeps his distance from his fellow soldiers, trying to escape from the insanity of war by reading Hesse and Pirandello.

The Professor and Doc (Seth Lilley) are the two most educated men in their squad.

Baby San, a draftee who is the greenest and the youngest, is played by John Tervanis. Ryan Milord and Tony Calkins are Scooter and Little John.

Though the battle scenes are intensely bloody, we see that these young men also endure stretches of grinding boredom and disorienting isolation. They use drink and drugs to deal with the stress and horror of combat.

Though the directors are identified in the program, there is no mention of who created the set design, the lighting, and such. The sound design is especially well done. There is intense noise of battle, thunderstorms, and many popular songs of the late-1960s period. During the pre-show music, it seemed as if every record played had a double-meaning in terms of the Vietnam War, such as Martha & The Vandellas’ “Nowhere To Run,” The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Stop, Children, What’s That Sound?”

This intensely riveting play is framed with scenes illustrating how the surviving soldiers coped when they came home. Some were crippled, others addicted. Many were suffering from the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange while others dealt with PTSD. And the cruelest of all seems to be that most of the vets encountered either outrage or indifference when they finally returned home.

Tracers makes it clear we can support our troops without supporting a war that sends so many home in body bags. I’m told that 22 veterans, most from the more recent wars, continue to kill themselves every day.

This sharply directed, strongly acted show is often very funny, but it’s also heart-breaking.

If you go

  • Tracers
  • Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison St.
  • May 19-21, June 1-4, and 15-18 at 8 p.m.
  • May 22, June 5 and 19 at 5 p.m.

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...

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