Nixon Cesar, Kyle Pierson, and Peter Stewart ina publicity shot for A Soldier's Death(Photo: Carol Schaefer)
Nixon Cesar, Kyle Pierson, and Peter Stewart in
a publicity shot for A Soldier's Death
(Photo: Carol Schaefer)
There's a poem called In Flanders Field, written by John McCrae, who served in the Canadian Army in World War I. It's a beautiful, haunting poem that is familiar to many people from high school English class. ("In Flanders Field the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row.") The poem is about the tragic glory of war and the brutal reality of death: "We are the dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow / Loved and were loved."

In Flanders Field seems to have been the starting point for Tom O'Neil's short play A Soldier's Death, now at 13th Street Rep. The poem is discussed in the play and quoted by the characters; it's also included as an insert in the program. Though O'Neil's lyrical, grief-stricken mediation on the moment of death rarely rises to the level of heartbreaking beauty that McCrae achieves in his poem, it is more than worthwhile. The playwright has a deft touch with character and a vivid imagination; and if A Soldier's Death is messy at times and a bit difficult to watch, we can certainly forgive the author, given the subject matter.

A soldier named Adam (Kyle Pierson) is dying on a hillside, and that information doesn't give anything away: When we see Adam as we enter the theatre, he's already dying. In a striking stage picture -- director Tony Pennino demonstrates a facility for striking stage pictures throughout -- Adam lies in a pool of light. He's been "shot or blown up or something." That doesn't matter; what matters is that he's lost a leg, is bleeding from the head, and has apparently been abandoned. Addressing the audience, overwrought, he contemplates his missing limb and bemoans his mistakes.

But Adam is not alone for long. As he slowly dies, he is joined by members of his loving family, who bring the mundane squabbles and gentle affection of home life to the battlefield. There's Adam, Sr. (Gavin Smith), doting mother Margaret (Deirdre Schwiesow), and little sister Jane -- Sarah Wolfman-Robichaud, whose buoyant, carefree performance provides the production's best moments. ("This place is so messy," she complains at one point, adding later that it's "boring.") The cheerful Jane's struggle to accept her brother's impending death is as affecting as his own struggle to accept it.

Before long, the party is joined by two of Adam's fellow soldiers: an African-American family man named Rawlins (Nixon Cesar) and the hardheaded Jack (Peter Stewart). O'Neil's writing loses some focus as he shifts from the magical device of the family floating about the battlefield and consoling their lost boy to the grimmer realism of the soldiers' interaction. Why are we suddenly asked to care, for example, that Jack is a bitter racist? When Jane shows up again and begins to flirt gently with Rawlins (as Adam looks on, bemused), things pick up steam again. O'Neil finds a way to flesh out Rawlins' character without pushing Adam's story to the background -- though, of course, we already know what will happen to Adam.

This is a well-wrought chamber piece in which even the music is subtle and sadly beautiful (no composer is listed; sound design is credited to John DiMaggio). But it's unclear if the play set during a sort of Every War, with Adam dying anonymously on an anonymous hill, like so many before and after him, or if Adam is supposed to be a contemporary American soldier in a contemporary American war. To be sure, the opponent is unspecific: "We just call them 'them,'" Adam says irritably when his Dad, nostalgic for the war in which he himself fought, tries to find out if the bad guys are known as "Charlie" or whatever. Rawlins wears the patches of a contemporary American Special Forces soldier and Jane is dressed as a modern American teenager; on the other hand, Adam and Jane joke about their respective tussles in the back seat of Dad's car and the gently reproachful Margaret offers sandwiches from a basket, all of which lends a 1950s feeling to the action. Ambiguity concerning a play's time period isn't necessarily a bad thing but, in this case, it reads as an artistic lapse rather than a choice.