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July 08, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, July 08, 2005

Vietnam War echoes in 'Birds' Vietnam War echoes in 'Birds' (July 08, 2005)

Pear Theatre's latest play studies human impact of combat

By Katie Vaughn

The latest production at Pear Avenue Theatre is a mix of memories, fiction and facts that will likely resonate with many viewers. A work by local playwright Elizabeth Gjelten, "What the Birds Carry" tells the effects the Vietnam War has had on a couple over 25 years.

"It's how they bring the war back with them," Gjelten said. "It's the half-life of war, how it reverberates and reverberates."

The play opens with a monologue, as one of the lead characters, Mary Jean, gives a eulogy for her former lover, Tee. The plot then moves two weeks in reverse, when M.J. visits Tee on his deathbed at a Seattle veterans' hospital after not seeing him for two decades.

"You watch what happens between these people who haven't seen each other in 20 years and the issues between them," Gjelten said.

From then on, the storyline progresses in a linear fashion, with flashbacks interspersed to illustrate M.J. and Tee's former relationship. Audiences learn who the characters were and who they have become. M.J. was a middle-class preacher's daughter who is now a Los Angeles district attorney in the domestic violence unit. She's tightly wound and carries years of anger. Tee, in contrast, came from a working-class family and was drafted early in the Vietnam War. Charming and flirtatious, he was deeply troubled by his experience at war. Their meeting at the hospital brings their pasts to the surface.

"It becomes clear pretty soon on that M.J.'s there to get something, a certain kind of apology," Gjelten said. "But he has a different agenda, a story to tell about Vietnam."

As M.J. and Tee fall into their old banter and fights, they reveal to audiences the intense chemistry they shared and the issues that drove them apart.

"M.J. and Tee try to make peace with memories of their younger selves, telling secrets that have been hidden for 20 years and seeking apologies for the mistakes they made in the flush of their passionate youth," said director Virginia Reed.

Alongside the couple's reunion run two additional storylines. A nurse struggling with her husband fighting in Iraq finds comfort in Tee, while the hospital chaplain helps M.J. His father was a Vietnam veteran and he reminds her of her former love.

"He echoes a different kind of Tee," Gjelten said, "who he could have been had he not gone to Vietnam."

Five actors play the six characters -- M.J. and Tee when they are young and old, the nurse and the chaplain -- many of whom are compilations of people Gjelten has known and heard stories about. The same can be said of the storyline itself, made up of memories and emotions the playwright has of the Vietnam era.

Now a part-time student of San Francisco State University's master's playwright program, Gjelten began writing "What the Birds Carry" years ago in New York City. She was attending a party for a jazz musician's release of an album that dealt with the Vietnam War. She started writing a poem, wondering about not only the experience men had in war, but also about the ways women were affected by them coming home. Later, when a teacher instructed her to write a theatrical piece, she ended up with the Vietnam-tinged monologue that now serves as the opening of "Birds."

After turning the monologue into a full play, Gjelten submitted it to Pear Avenue Theatre, and has rewritten and revised the work throughout the 12-week pre-rehearsal and six-week rehearsal process. Reed said the cast has paid special attention to the instrumentation of their voices and bodies and tried to make use of The Pear's intimate venue.

The result is a deeply serious topic imbued with humor, sexiness and tenderness and made personal through the characters of M.J. and Tee. Ultimately, Gjelten said, audiences should be able to relate to the play, no matter if their experiences with the Vietnam War differ from her memories.

"It's dealing with the emotional territory," she said. "There is emotional truth."
What: "What the Birds Carry" presented by Pear Avenue Theatre and the Bootstrap Foundation Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K When: July 8 through July 25, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Call: (650) 254-1148 or visit

E-mail Katie Vaughn at [email protected]

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