According to a 2014 Department of Veterans Affairs report, 22 million Americans are veterans. Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue investigates how war affects those millions of veterans by portraying the complicated dynamics of one military family. The Pulitzer Prize finalist and the first play in The Elliot Trilogy, is now playing at WaterTower Theatre in Addison through February 18.
The play centers around Elliot, a 19-year-old Marine returning from Iraq with a wounded leg, a Purple Heart and several questions about the legacy of his Puerto Rican family’s military service.
Hudes uses a fugue-like structure to intertwine the wartime experiences of Grandpop, who served in Korea, and Pop, a Vietnam veteran. Ginny, Elliot’s mother, met her husband during her service in the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War and she tries to help her son understand his own wartime experience.
The contrapuntal structure of the play allows characters to narrate their experience of the horrors of war across time and space. “I think the key is to establish different points of view. One person is living it, one person is reading it in a letter and another is recalling it,” David Lozano, the director of WaterTower Theatre’s production and Executive Artistic Director of Cara Mia Theatre, said.
The structure of the play is not the only musical element of the show. Grandpop is an accomplished musician who took his flute to Korea and hoped to pass that musical legacy to Pop as he prepared to go to Vietnam. “Music made him happy,” Lozano said. “When he gave his son his flute, he thought it would help him through the war because he didn’t have the words to express it.”
Pop did not know how to play the flute, eventually discarding it. “The flute represents the breakdown of that communication among the men of three generations and the dysfunction in the family,” Lozano said.
While Grandpop prefers the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Elliot listens to hip hop. Their musical preferences represent how the different generations deal with the stresses of war. “Grandpop used music to soothe where Elliot uses music to pump himself up,” Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, the actor who plays Elliot, said.
Another generational issue Elliot faces is his father’s refusal to discuss his wartime experience, adhering to a stifling code of silence. “Old Latino men are not known for wearing their hearts on their sleeves and opening up,” Ramirez said. “Elliot really feels the need to talk to his father and hear him said, ‘Hey, I went through that too and I went on to get married, have a son and I’m okay.’ He needs that approval, that reassurance.”
As Elliot considers going on a second tour of duty, he is also trying to reconcile his military identity with his Puerto Rican heritage. “He has almost this romanticized view about being a Marine and the military,” Ramirez said. “Then the reality sinks in.”
“Having been born in the U.S., Elliot knows who he is as he recalls his happiest memory of returning to Puerto Rico and watching his father teach his mother how to swim,” Lozano said. “He identifies himself most as a Marine, but understanding his cultural roots provides him a temporary peace.”
Elliot’s greatest comfort is Ginny, a compassionate witness to the impact of war on three generations of her family. “She is a healer,” Ramirez said. “She saw the effects of war. She saw what the soldiers went through. She has almost a magic about her because she can heal them. Whether physical or emotional, they all have wounds they need to come to terms with.”
With a small percentage of the American population serving in the military, the play offers the audience an opportunity to comprehend the emotional cost of war. “I hope the audience walks away with the idea that it’s so important to hear the stories and to be caring and sensitive to their experience,” Ramirez said.
“Sometimes a play can reveal a conundrum of personal drama without resolving it. It can make an audience reflect on what they want for society,” Lozano said.
Ramirez also hopes this play will help the audience appreciate the service of Puerto Rican soldiers throughout American history. “They are a part of us and it is important to acknowledge that,” Ramirez said. WaterTower Theatre’s “Pay It Forward with Pay What You Can” performance on January 28 at 2 p.m. will benefit UNIDOS Disaster Relief and Recovery Program. The program serves the immediate and long-term needs of families and communities in Puerto Rico during the recovery following Hurricane Maria.