Playwright Mat Smart has created something remarkable with “Eden Prairie, 1971,” which is currently being presented at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch as part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere. It’s a profound play about the Vietnam War that takes place entirely on a 1971 night in the backyard of a home in a small Minnesota town. (That would be Eden Prairie, which is, yes, a real place, in the suburbs of Minneapolis.)
The play opens with Pete (played by Emilio Cuesta), covered with dirt, arriving in the backyard at midnight. He’s a draft dodger, we later learn, now working on a farm in Canada, but has walked hundreds of miles — doing his traveling only at night, for more than two weeks, in order to stay under the radar — to talk to Rachel (Oriana Lada) after a mutual friend of theirs, Aaron, died in Vietnam. He feels a desperate need to tell Rachel something that Aaron told him.
He knocks on Rachel’s window; she sees him and comes outside. He can’t enter her house — nor can he visit his parents, who live nearby — because he can’t risk getting caught. So he and Rachel stay in the backyard in the early hours of the morning, talking. She helps him clean up and give him some much-needed food.
As they get deeper into their conversation, a very complicated scenario unfolds.
Pete’s father has lost his job as part of the backlash against his son’s draft-dodging, and without that income, he and Pete’s mother have found themselves in dire straits, financially.
Rachel’s father is serving in the military, in what he (and Rachel) believe is a just cause, though Rachel is also sympathetic to Pete’s decision to leave the country.
As far as Pete himself, he refuses to describe himself as a conscientious objector, even though he seems to be exactly that.
“I’m an ant that doesn’t want to get stepped on,” he argues. That is, not someone with any greater motive. But it seems like a form of modesty for him to be saying that.
Though neither Pete nor Aaron was Rachel’s boyfriend in high school, they both were enamored of her. And while there are some very sweet moments between Pete and Rachel, this is not really a love story. There may be a future for them, Smart seems to suggest, but only years later, after the war ends and things return to normal.
There is a third character in the play: Rachel’s mother, Mrs. Thompson (Andrea Gallo). Wracked with worry about her husband in Vietnam, she has passed out, drunk, at the start of the play, but later she wakes up and discovers Pete and Rachel. Sensitively played by Gallo, she, unexpectedly, becomes the heart and soul of the play.
Evan Bergman directed, helping to keep the action taut and make every conversational exchange meaningful — sometimes more through the actors’ facial expressions than the actual words. Scenic designer Jessica Parks creates a very believable backyard on the small NJ Rep stage.
I wrote in the opening paragraph that this is a play about the Vietnam War. To be more precise, this is a play about three very real people — flawed in some ways but admirable in others — and the way their lives are turned upside down by it. And the way they try to deal with that. I found it very moving, and highly recommend it.
Remaining performances of “Eden Prairie,” 1971″ at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch take place Nov. 10-11 and 17-18 at 8 p.m.; Nov. 12 and 19 at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Nov. 13 and 20 at 2 p.m. Visit njrep.org.
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