It’s hard to isolate one simple element of James L. Larocca’s Penang (directed by Donya K. Washington) and point to it as the central theme. Penang unfolds a bit like an autopsy – it is an even, measured, calculated dissection of the life of Tim Riordan (Scott Raker) and an inspection of the elements which led him to do the unthinkable just moments before he was to leave Vietnam and go home.
While Penang starts off as a war story, it evolves into something more. It’s also a buddy story and at times it has the emotional bonding of a male Thelma and Louise … but of course, again, it’s more. It is a tale of survivor’s guilt, it’s a grown up Stand By Me, it’s a psychological investigation, it’s a bit of a mystery, but above all, it is a deeply moving story about one man’s personal journey as he explores his relationship with his faith, his country, his friends, and (most importantly) with himself. Nothing about Penang is easy to distill or explain – except the fact that this is a brilliant, moving production which brought me to tears, gave me chills, and exposed a layer of male bonding that I don’t often get to witness.
When we first meet Navy Lieutenant Tim Riordan (Scott Raker) during the Vietnam War he’s on the deck of a ship, doing his best to guide a helicopter which is taking off from the deck. Or rather he’s strongly advising the pilot to stay put and not risk lives by taking off in heavy winds. The scene - set with no more than sound (David Schulder) and lighting (Zach Blane) - is so intricately crafted that you find yourself cowering in your seat as you experience the helicopter taking off despite Riordan’s orders. You can almost feel the vibration and motion of the ship as the helicopter crashes into the ocean, killing several people … including Riordan’s close friend Bobby. You can’t help but latch on to Riordan as the disaster is reflected in his reactions … as his anger and confusion at the pilot’s idiocy turns to dread and horror as he realizes his friend has been hit. The scene is so vivid that you could almost close your eyes and smell the fire in the air.
With the simple transition of a quick blackout we’re suddenly back in the states; and here’s where the real story begins to unfold. We quickly find – with the help of Doctor Lee (Leona) Kaufman (Jacqueline Gregg) that Riordan has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt which occurred somewhere between the relatively uneventful moments he packed his bags for home and just minutes later when he was discovered on the floor in a pool of blood. Doctor Kaufman also plays a bit of the Greek Chorus role, she doesn’t understand the Vietnam War and provides a vehicle to discuss it.
At first it’s easy to try and piece the story together yourself; after all, here lies a young man who has been in the thick of combat, who has experienced death exploding right in front of him. He’s lost his friend, and more, he’s lost his edge. Surely an act of self destruction can be easily ferreted out once you piece all the bits together. But as I mentioned … there’s more - and it’s when all roads seem to lead back to Penag – not a combat zone at all, but a haven of peace, a Malaysian R&R destination – that real questions start to bubble up.
In flashback we’re led to beautiful Penang, to that short furlough that managed to make such an impression on Riordan in part due to the fact that he simply had time to stop for a moment, but also in part due to the fact that while lounging on the beach he meets U.S. Air Force captain, Richard “Luke” DeLuca (Peter Sabri). Luke and Tim couldn’t be more different, but experiencing the same horrors during wartime will trump social class and ethnic background as bonding elements every time. Through a thick Queens accent Luke explains his role as “morale officer”; he’s the one who makes sure the guys are happy during their tour of duty. As if to illustrate this his comes to the beach armed with home made sun tan lotion and an alcoholic concoction that would put a Long Island Ice Tea to shame. Before too long, the two men become fast friends.
“What happens in Penang stays in Penang” might easily be the tagline for the journey Luke and Tim embark on together. They decide to join forces and hire a driver, Jimmy Chen (Kurt Uy, who plays Jimmy like Bloody Mary by way of Ms. Swan) to take them around the island. Jimmy is an engaging local character, eager to show the best of what his home has to offer, and quick to make a joke or deflect a painful topic. What unfolds is a series of scenes that take Tim and Luke to various spiritual temples and places of worship such as the Snake Temple and the Temple of the Sleeping Buddha. While the moments are touching, they’d be better served as a cinematic montage than a repetitive pantomiming of getting in and out of the “car”. The tourist scenes last a bit long, but do much to reinforce the fact that together these men went on a journey that involved a little more than some sun tan lotion and some Aqua Velva flavored libations.
Tim and Luke (and even Jimmy Chen) are men who have lost a lot – brothers, best friends, a son. And this leads all of them to explore faith. To some (like Jimmy), losing a son is an opportunity to renew faith in God. To others, like Tim, it’s an opportunity to dismiss religion altogether. While you’ve often heard “there are no atheists in foxholes” even Luke explains it best when he says … “Do I believe? I’m afraid not to believe. I must believe in God … where else could this kind of fear come from?”
Ultimately, the story of Penang explores the idea of what you do when the people you’re used to reaching out to for help during a time of trauma are now dead; killed right in front of your eyes, or dying while you’re too far away to say your goodbyes. In cases like these some times you reach out to those who just happen to be in close proximity. And all it’s ever meant to be is a great time that gets filed away quickly as a great memory. The rest of the story of Penang tells how this just isn’t the case for Tim Riordan.
In the end, all questions that can be answered (What exactly did happen in Penang? Why did Tim attempt suicide?) are brought to a satisfying conclusion while the age old questions (Is there a God? What is all this for?) remain, as always, endlessly debatable but ultimately unanswerable.
–Penang Three week limited engagement November 5 – November 22, 2009 At the Workshop Mainstage Theater 312 West 36th Street, 4th Fl. Wednesday through Fridays at 8 p.m. Saturdays at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets on Sale at TheaterMania.com