Take one headstrong young African-American female cadet who sued her way into an all-male military institute. Add one cantankerous old white war hero on his deathbed. Put them alone together in the same room, and you've got the formula for a two-hour verbal firefight between opposing ideologies - after all, it is called "War Story," right?
To be sure, the sparks fly and the verbal salvos are fired off with speed and precision. But Bo Wilson's new play, in its world premiere production at the Barksdale, is more than the sum of its parts. Under the direction of John Moon, "War Story" is a well-drawn character study of two people who appear to be diametrically opposed, but who come to a greater understanding of themselves, each other and their combined purpose in the world.
Wilson's characters are well-balanced against each other. Kendra Davion (Nedra McClyde) is part soldier, part writer, as she comes in with a "metric ton of baggage" to interview the very man who fought in court to keep her and her gender out of the institute. Gen. "Railroad" Walker (Daryl Clark Phillips) is a much-decorated old soldier who is now indeed fading away in his institution-green room at a seemingly abandoned military hospital.
He reacts to her intrusion with vehemence, accusing her of being a fraud not a true soldier, he taunts her, but "Emily Dickinson with an M-16." She angrily tells him at one point: "I'm not playing. I never have been!" But why is she there to interview him?
Therein, of course, lies the crux of the story. What they don't know yet is that they share a history that neither could have guessed but which will determine the future of each.
McClyde's performance as the soldier with the soul of a writer is finely drawn, as she takes the cadet across the spectrum between the pen and the sword. Her Kendra is at once strong and weak, determined and lost, and always sympathetic and intelligent. Phillips' performance as the old hero scores on an emotional level, though he's just too young to have fought in World War II, and maybe a little too feisty to be really dying. Despite this, he is a joy to watch as, in surprising ways, he reveals more and more of the real man behind the hero's myth. Under Moon's able direction, McClyde and Phillips are superb together, keeping the fast-paced and often witty dialogue flying with skill.
Less successful are the machinations that Wilson and Moon have to employ to keep the production down to a two-character piece: For example, why is there a dying patient with no doctors or nurses in sight? Yet it's that very flaw that allows one of the plays most effective scenes, their final one together, to come across in a real and heartfelt way.
The general is fond of telling Kendra, in various ways during the play, that one can be most effective in winning one's battles if one uses the right weapon. Though hers may be obvious, his final choice is more surprising. Through the course of Wilson's finely woven story the two adversaries recognize the warrior and the writer in each other. By the end of "War Story," they have taught each other much about the meaning of victory.
"War Story" runs through Jan. 27 at Barksdale Theatre.
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