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Springfield Journal Register, Springfield Illinois

Playwright retraces war experience in 'A Long Way Home.

Playwright retraces war experience in 'Long Way Home'

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Brian Mackey/The State Journal-Register

Tony Young plays a Vietnam vet having trouble adjusting to life back in Springfield in "A Long Way Home," by local author Thomas R. Jones.



Posted Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:00 PM

Local author Thomas R. Jones says it took him 20 years to write “Lost Survivor,” a novel about his war experience in Vietnam and the difficulty he faced coming home. But it turns out that was relatively easy.

“I think it was harder to write the play in a year,” Jones says in a recent interview.

The resulting adaptation, “A Long Way Home,” opens Friday for a three-day run at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

Jones set out to create a fairly conventional play, but the project has morphed into a multimedia production, combining video projections, surround sound and — at least at Tuesday’s dress rehearsal — a box fan circulating a wretched smell that director Tony Young called “jungle decay.”

Jones says he wants the audience “to really feel and hear the noises and all that you’re going through whether you’re in the jungle or you’ve got incoming (weapons fire) coming at you.”

At the start of Tuesday’s rehearsal, a video begins playing. Over footage from the Vietnam era, the audience hears the voice of Young, who also plays the role of JD, a medic just returned from combat in Vietnam.

He reads a visceral description of JD’s — and presumably Jones’ — first moments “in country.”

“When we landed at Da Nang, I stepped out of the air-conditioned plane into a blinding brightness and a blast of heat that sucked the air from my lungs,” Young says. “Sweat poured from my body, soaking my uniform. Exploding bombs, machine gun fire and jets taking off assaulted my ears. The smell of (feces) invaded my nose. A gritty grime covered my body, before my foot even touched the ground.”

The film projections are archive shots — soldiers on patrol, questioning prisoners, evacuating wounded on helicopters. They were edited, scored and mixed with sound by David Cain, a resident artist at the Hoogland Center and the play’s technical director.

“It’s incredible footage; it gives you goosebumps,” Cain says. “There’s footage of troops, 30 minutes of guys under attack; bombs are flying.”

But at its core, the story is about JD’s experience of war and homecoming.

Jones, 65, retired this spring as the chief deputy director for Budget and Fiscal Management at the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. Before that, he was an assistant director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Jones says there are aspects of JD’s homecoming experience that recent veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan will find familiar.

He says combat hasn’t changed much: “Whether you’re in combat in World War I, II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq — any of those — if somebody’s shooting at you, trying to kill you, you have the same emotions.”

What has changed is the way military personnel are treated when they return from overseas — no longer widely looked down upon and accused of being “baby killers,” as people were in Jones’ era.

Jones attributes the change to the nature of the fighting force, which today includes a higher percentage of National Guard soldiers called up for active duty, and therefore touches many more members of communities across the country.

“They feel like it’s their kids over there — it’s not the military fighting a war in some faraway place,” Jones says.

“What’s relevant about it is: How do you go through such an experience of war and combat, and come back and get traction back into your life?”

Brian Mackey can be reached at 747-9587.

Copyright 2010 The State Journal-Register. Some rights reserved

Comments (1)

innocent bystander

This show is worth checking out. I watched the dress rehearsal and was captivated. The video footage is archival and well placed among the story. The actors do a great job putting passion and conviction into their roles. Mr. Jones should be commended for being able to tell his story with such heart and courage like so many others who fought in Vietnam have been unable to do. Go out and catch the show. It's never to late to show support for our veterans, regardless of when they fought.


The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori.

A Review of the World Premier of Thomas R. Jones' Play,
A Long Way Home

by James L. Seay

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

-Langston Hughes

It is always exciting to attend the world premier of any new (or old) play - but to attend two such premiers in the same season, in the same geographical area is more than double the treat. That has been my good fortune as a drama critic this season. In June, at Theatre in the Park, I saw and reviewed Tara McClellan McAndrews' new play, Yearning to Breath Free. Last night I saw Thomas R. Jones' new play, A Long Way Home. Both, in a way, were plays about homecomings. The McAndrews play about immigrants seeking a new home in America; the Jones' play about an African-American's homecoming in Springfield after his combat tour in Vietnam. Both were bittersweet, thought-provoking pieces of new theatre.

Jones' A Long Way Home is an adaptation of his autobiographical novel, Lost Survivor. I have not yet read the novel, but for it to equal in power the play will take some doing. I found the play to have the impact of a brick crashing through a plate glass window. Although it relies heavily on monologues (two scenes are listed in the program as "monologues," and at least three more of the dozen scenes in three acts rely on monologues. These monologues are by the protagonist, J.D. (Tony Young, who is also the director) and deal with his childhood, his early military training, and, primarily his time in Vietnam, with an almost constant stream of filmed images projected on the cyclorama. These images present a constant to the audience, and we realize, through them, that the war is an ever-invading presence in J.D.'s life as he tries to adjust to his homecoming during his post-tour furlough. He is constantly confronted by well-meaning but ignorant friends and family members unable to cope with the fact that the war has changed J.D. What they do not know is that the war has never left him and never will. He says, "Anybody who comes home from Nam and says they don't have problems was never there."

J.D. becomes a virtual brother-in-arms with Harold Krebs, Ernest Hemingway's protagonist in his short story, "Soldier's Home." Like J.D., Krebs is faced by a mother who is a very religious woman who tries to get her son out of his post-war trauma, a sister who still looks up to her brother, but does not understand him in his post-war state, and the figure of an absent father. Tormented by his war time experiences, Harold Krebs eventually comes to realize that he no longer belongs to his childhood home and knows he must leave. Yet Harold Krebs is a veteran of World War I. J.D., Krebs, and millions of others come to see what another World War I veteran, this time an Englishman, the Soldier Poet Wilfred Owen, came to call "The old lie; Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."

Obviously, this is a question that veterans of all wars face. While each veteran's war is different, they all share similarities that make them the same. Look at Hemingway's Harold Krebs, for instance. When talking with ex-Marine and World War II veteran, Detective Fedder (Alan Perry), J.D. explains to him that the difference between a marine being penned down on the beach of a South Pacific island and a marine in the jungle of Vietnam is that the people supported the war in the Pacific, and looked down, not only on the war in Vietnam, but on the warrior as well. Perhaps this idea has merit, I am not sure, but I do recall a soldiers' ballad from my own war, Korea, which stated, "Few people know we are living/And fewer still give a goddamn,/Although we are forgotten,/ We belong to Uncle Sam." And yet, I must agree with J.D. when he says as long as someone is shooting at you, there is no such thing as a small war.

Tony Young is powerful as J.D. He clearly carries the play, not only because it is written for him to carry, but his understanding of and relationship to his character makes it so. He is ably backed-up by Sharion Israel as his mother, and Florence Holmes as Jan, his wife. Other good performances are turned in by Greg Isreal as J.D.'s friend, Jeff, who probably comes as close to understanding him as any of the people he has left behind, and Stanley Hunter as Hank, another Vietnam vet and the only one of the characters with whom J.D. seems to have any real understanding. Kevin Holmes gives an interesting perspective on Kareen, the Black Panther who cannot understand why J.D. is fighting "a rich white man's war against some meaningless yellow men." Heidi Dillon's Aunt Katheryn probably comes the closest of the civilians-left-behind to understanding J.D. and how and why he has changed. And the constant in-your-face films of J.D.'s war is visceral and always there. The audience cannot escape it. Neither can J.D., as his life drives on to a sad but sadly predictable climax and conclusion.

Jones' powerful play and the cast's generally excellent (and sometimes superb) performances make this a theatrical production that deserves a longer run than just three performances (September 10 and 11 at 7:00 p.m. and September 12 at 2:00 p.m.) at Springfield's Hoogland Center for the Arts' LRS Theatre. As a veteran and a theatre critic, I urge you to see it. But be prepared, it is not for the faint of heart - but then, neither is war.

For reservations, call the HCFTA Box Office at (217) 523-2787, and pray that this important bit of theatre will be reprised quickly and often.

J Publications, Inc. 2013