The evocative production of “Not About Heroes” at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre is, simply put, a class act.
Stephen MacDonald’s two-actor play about the friendship between poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, bound by their love of words and their deeply felt reactions to the waste and horrors of World War I, is at first glance less a drama than a skillful sketch. But by the conclusion of the performance, most viewers will know that they’ve been on a journey through a world that at once feels familiar and distant. We live in a time when the general population seems strangely isolated from America’s wars, wars fought by an all-volunteer army and military contractors. But World War I touched virtually every single person in Britain. And its realities were transmitted principally through the written word
Director Bob Paisley stages the work with subtlety and careful attention to the abundant poetry we hear spoken during the performance. And he captures two fine performances by Robert Gibby Brand as Sassoon, the older of the two, and Seth Macchi as Owen. Brand’s strengths as an actor are well known and few others can handle literary language with such precision and nuance. Macchi, who I’d never seen in a major role before, is a startling revelation. Not many actors can hold their own with Brand, but Macchi does so with confidence and skill. Together, the performers craft a moving portrait of a profound friendship ended all too soon by the war.
Sassoon and Owen met in 1917 at a military hospital in Scotland. Owen was there for shell shock, manifested by a stammer and trembling hands. Sassoon had been hospitalized in an effort to shut him up after his outspoken objections to British war aims in a conflict that seemed to him little more than futile slaughter. Eventually each of them returned to active service. Indeed, Sassoon’s pacifism was hard-earned. He was wounded more than once and a section of Act 2 includes a vivid description of the head wound that ended the war for him.
Owen was an aspiring poet and was so enamored of Sassoon’s work that in the play he asks the older writer to autograph several copies of his book of “The Old Huntsman,” which Owen greatly admires. As the friendship develops, Owen tentatively shows Sassoon some of his own work, which is rough but demonstrates to the older poet significant talent. Much of the play focuses on their discussions of the craft of poetry. That sounds frightfully arcane, and indeed it is, but MacDonald’s script makes these passages accessible and illuminating.
On another level the play addresses the brutality of war. The literature of World War I, with its unblinking depictions of the conflict’s human cost, is a limitless lament of violence and misery. You’d think we’d seen and heard it all by now, but MacDonald’s descriptions of the war, much of it taken directly from the poetry, letters and diaries of Sasson and Owen, makes it all seem new again. Sadness hangs over this play like few others.
With minimal sets and props, Paisley keeps the show visually dynamic. He’s aided significantly by John Story’s sound design and Derek Boyd’s lighting. More than that, he and his actors bring the words of Sasson and Owen to life with surprising immediacy. They lived at a time when people wrote coherent letters in complete sentences with pen and ink. It makes you wonder: Will the written record of our own time amount to much more than texts and emails? Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet on it.