The title Last of the Boys could be taken as jaunty or scary. Steven Dietz’s 2004 comedy-drama is also haunting, and sometimes genuinely funny on stage at Theatre Factory.
Dietz takes a magical-realist approach to remembering the Vietnam War by way of the brief reunion of a couple of “grunts.” When first introduced, Ben (Dennis Kerr) and Jeeter (William Milas) seem indistinguishable: two geezers with long white hair and beards, still stuck in the ’60s. But the latter exploits the era, as he embraces modernity. The former stays mired in his memories, divorcing himself from the world and its realities.
Upsetting the old boys’ bonds, enter young Salyer (breezily portrayed by Kaylyn Farneth) and her mother (Pamela Farneth, working valiantly with the little Dietz has provided). They have their own conflicts and demons to pursue. Completing the ensemble, Domenic Jungling fleshes out various ghost-soldiers with military crispness.
It helps to remember that the year before Boys was first produced, The Fog of War, a documentary “starring” Robert McNamara, was a surprise hit. The former U.S. Secretary of Defense, and “father” of the Vietnam strategy, features prominently in the play, both as chief of the various ghosts and as a dominant theme. Set in the late 1990s, Boys frequently refers to “McNamara’s book,” presumably In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995), his sorta-apology for that war’s “quagmire.”
Kerr readily morphs from the embittered Ben to an embodiment of McNamara, mentor to Ben’s long-estranged father as well as architect of the war that captured both their souls. There’s quite a tangle of emotions for all the characters, still enmeshed in a war that’s now a remote page of history to many generations of Americans.
Director Sue Kurey keeps the production well-grounded even as it spins into spiritualism. The richly detailed set (designed by William Mitas) adds another character to the action and its toxic background.
The ghosts of Vietnam still haunt America today. Last of the Boys is certainly not the last of the discussions and dissections of that age, but it’s among the most intelligent and fulfilling.