Charles Weldon in Touch the Names
Charles Weldon in Touch the Names
Letters written to the dead have limited dramatic potential. Since there's no possibility that the person being addressed will ever write back, the conversations tend to be one-sided and excessively maudlin. Staging such letters is a challenge -- one that Touch the Names, conceived by Randal Myler and Chic Street Man, does not meet.

Subtitled "Letters to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial," the show is comprised of actual letters that were left by people visiting the memorial in Washington, D.C. They are from sons that never knew their fathers, women who lost their men to the war, soldiers who survived while their comrades in arms did not, nurses who can no longer remember the names of the men they cared for, and so on.

A cast of 10 performs the play, accompanied by "Mississippi" Charles Bevel singing and playing the guitar in original compositions by himself and Chic Street Man. Sometimes the actors sit, sometimes they stand. That's the extent of the blocking that Myler, as director, has given them; the show is visually static. Lighting designer Brian Nason varies the look a little but favors spotlights that slowly fade out on the performer, which too often comes across as melodramatic.

Most of the letters are too short for the actors to sink their teeth into, although some are more emotionally loaded than others. Carolyn McCormick seems genuinely on the verge of tears as she speaks in the voice of a woman who comes to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to mourn her first love. Myk Watford, playing a veteran, also connects with his material when he states that it's easy to tell who the vets visiting the memorial are: Rather than asking questions like what materials were used to build the wall, they "just stand and look, not caring who sees us cry."

Charles Weldon gives the most accomplished performance of the evening. He makes jokes one moment but then is sad or angry the next as his character addresses his fallen comrades and tries to make sense of the world he now lives in. Weldon brings a welcome energy to the show and is the only cast member to acknowledge and interact with Bevel, even singing along with him at one point.

Although the cast is ethnically diverse, race plays a factor in only a few of the letters. Tellingly, the two read by Jing He -- the company's only Asian performer -- are among these. Neither letter states right out that the writer is Vietnamese but there are strong hints that this is the case in both the words and the staging. For example, as the actress comes forward for the first time, she executes a small bow -- a rather stereotypical signifier of Asian-ness. Although there is no definitive statement about race or racism within Touch the Names, it's interesting that some of the letters were left by veterans who address not their fellow American soldiers but, rather, the Vietnamese men whose lives they took. They ask for forgiveness, fully realizing that there is no longer any reason for them to consider such men their enemies.

Touch the Names is an admirable project that never really comes together. The pace of the evening drags and there's not enough variety of tone in the letters. Since the actors tend not to interact with one another, the piece also seems emotionally disconnected; there's no conflict or dramatic tension to sustain the audience's interest, and while the music is pleasant enough, it's not particularly memorable. Neither is the majority of the acting. Certainly, the letters left behind at the war memorial meant a great deal to the people who wrote them, but that depth of feeling has not been successfully captured and translated to the stage.