In Oliver Stone's "Born of the Fourth of July," the 1989 movie that earned Tom Cruise his first Academy Award nomination, there's a potent tableau set during an Independence Day parade in Massapequa, N.Y., wherein shell-shocked veterans of the war in Vietnam are booed and hissed by their fellow Americans.
Did they do that in Minnesota? Perhaps. But there is no such scene in "Homecoming 1972," the new play by Robert Koon premiering at Chicago Dramatists that also looks at the problems of returning from Vietnam, albeit through the prism of re-entering a small town in service of the values of so-called "Minnesota nice." The experience of Frank (Matt Holzfeind's central character) is not pockmarked by incendiary confrontations with his fellow citizens but more by a pervasive sense of confusion and sadness all around, which surely better reflects the typical, such homecomings of 1972.
The problem in a theatrical sense is that not much happens (not much you can grab hold of, at least) in Koon's slow-moving collection of lengthy, homogenous scenes as we go from diner to bedroom to bench, making these 90 minutes feel as long as they feel worthy. Although Koon tells his mostly melancholic story of a confusing time in a small town with only five characters, he breaks this group down yet further, penning a series of two-person scenes as the wandering Frank tries to find his way back into the town, and the town tries to come to terms with the moment.
This is, of course, well-plowed earth, and there are times when "Homecoming 1972" just feels like it can't get far enough away from small-town cliches. There is Maria (Greta Honold), a young woman who feels the limitations of a small-town life on a daily basis, and Darla (Molly Glynn), a sardonic, all-knowing waitress in a diner dispensing, along with the coffee, servings of sadness, bon mots and a certain remove from her gestalt. On the other hand, small towns do have such characters (in addition, Julian Hester plays The Kid and Brett Schneider plays Joe), and "Homecoming 1972" has been given a richly detailed production from the skilled director Kimberly Senior, who uses Koon's notable skills with character development to forge a series of vignettes that feel consistently real — and, in a few places, are genuinely moving.
Nothing here is overplayed: Senior is relentless in enforcing the notion that the feelings of small-town folks in Minnesota are not expressed through screaming fits, but mostly must be discerned from the subtexts of their polite conversations.
Much of the acting is very strong. Glynn, for example, takes that diner waitress, a tricky assignment indeed, and fleshes her out in all kinds of unexpected ways, layering the character with levels of pain, desire and resilience. Honold also captures what it feels like when you sense the walls closing in, even if they are moving only a millimeter or two every year. And Schneider's Joe is a warm-blooded creation.
You'll likely find yourself engrossed in these individual scenes, staged on a very simple set from Jack Magaw. There's an authenticity in the writing and staging. But Frank's journey is not entirely satisfying. You don't care enough about him, which might be something for the complex but sometimes jumpy actor Holzfeind to think about, and also remains a challenge unsolved for everyone involved in Frank's homecoming.
When: Through June 23
Where: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $32 at 312-633-0630 or chicagodramatists.org