Willy Holtzman's Hearts, which is currently receiving its St. Louis premiere at the New Jewish Theatre, is a play of astonishing aspirations. In telling the story of one man's battle with a war that never ends, Hearts becomes a mosaic of 60 years of American life, all told with just five actors. Too often in today's theater, the doubling and tripling of roles is a transparent attempt to save salaries. But here the ploy enhances the story, for it bestows an intimacy that helps to bring the play's ambitious themes within the viewer's grasp.
There's been precious little dissembling in this thinly veiled drama about Holtzman's father Donald (here renamed Donald Waldman), who served in the infantry during the final year of World War II, survived the Battle of the Bulge and helped to liberate the Nazi-run concentration camp at Buchenwald. Donald then spent the rest of his life trying to come to terms with those glorious yet haunting experiences. Like that other celebrated memory play, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Hearts is rooted in St. Louis. But really, the heart of this drama is set in Donald's mind. Even the detritus of war (sandbags, helmets, canteens) that clutters the stage in Dunsi Dai's scenic design suggests that we are somewhere deep inside Donald's brain cavity. Is that tinsel hanging from the barbed wire? It is, and in time we learn why. But throughout the evening those tiny barbs are ever scraping against Donald's senses, eliciting howls of confusion and pain. He may have been forgotten by his government ("Dear Mr. Waldman, We regret to inform you that there is no record of you ever having served in the Armed Forces of the United States"), but Donald cannot forget.
Frequent flashbacks jump to decades past and turn an epic drama episodic. At one moment Donald is a 1944 high school graduate, a fighter eager for war; minutes later he is a protective father who will not allow his son to fight in Vietnam. ("They want me to smoke my own flesh and blood? They got it once.") The evening builds to a shattering scene at Buchenwald. Some historical events are so evil that drama cannot convey them, yet Hearts comes closer than anything I've ever seen onstage at evoking the bewildering ambivalence some liberators felt when they encountered the heretofore unimagined horrors of the concentration camps. But still the play is not done. Although Hearts can be faulted for having too many false endings, it finally attains catharsis through, of all unlikely devices, an e-mail chat room.
The production at New Jewish is a revelation. Beginning with Milton Zoth's direction, which takes the viewer by the hand and ever so gently steers him through this potential maze of time, space and conscience, right down to Robin Weatherall's compelling sound design, everyone involved with Hearts has overextended him- and herself. The result is a completely professional effort.
The role of Donald must be at least as long as Hamlet. Truth to tell, the role is too long. Perhaps Holtzman can be forgiven for wanting to cram so much into his play, but he has made inhumane demands on his lead actor. Yet the most admirable facet of Christopher Limber's multifaceted Donald is the character's humanity. This re-creation of a life is the performance of a lifetime, and Limber deserves to be seen. He is wonderfully supported by Kevin Beyer, Charles Heuvelman and John Pierson. Initially they portray three card-playing cronies, but in time they enact all the inhabitants of Donald's world. Ruth E. Heyman essays the various female roles.
As ever more World War II veterans die daily, the hidden truths of that war die with them. Holtzman is to be commended for having captured a facet of World War II rarely discussed. "I'm just straightening out a few things," Donald rationalizes to his wife. But in fact Hearts strives for a great deal more than a mere straightening out. This venture into the recesses of memory may have begun as a family purgation, but the finished play is a cleansing in which everyone can share.