Los Angeles Theater Review: JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (The Actors’ Gang in Culver City)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on October 30, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun was published in September 1939, the same month Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. It was not an immediate hit, but it was perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist of the time. In those first months of the war, Americans saw the conflict as Europe’s problem to solve and were skittish about getting involved.

Trumbo’s searing indictment of war is told from the vantage point of a severely injured soldier in a hospital bed during the Great War, not yet called World War I since it was the only global conflict in history to that point. Nothing like it had ever been written.

Joe Bonham wakes up in a hospital bed. He remembers the explosion of an artillery shell. Slowly, he comes to understand that he has lost his arms, his legs, and just about all of his face: Eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue. His tragedy is that his brain is whole. His mind functions perfectly, seemingly at hyper drive speed. And he is a prisoner in his own body.

At first all he wants to do is die. Yet he lacks the means to even communicate this desire, let alone accomplish it on his own. As he gradually comes to develop a way of communicating with Morse Code he asks to be placed in a glass box and toured around the country. He believes seeing what has become of him would put an end to war altogether. No one would fight if they saw him.

He is given a terse response. Leaving the hospital in any circumstances is against regulations. There is no way out. He drifts between reality and memories of pleasures with family, friends, and his best girl, as he contemplates the difference between the truth of war and the fantasy of what the public imagines it to be.

Trumbo wrote and directed a 1971 film version starring Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland, and Marsha Hunt. it won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes and was a darling of the growing contingent of those who opposed the Vietnam War. Yet it found a limited audience, almost bankrupted Trumbo, and severely affected his health. (Playing minor roles as soldiers in flashbacks were future television megastars Anthony Geary and David Soul.)

Writer Bradley Rand Smith adapted it as a one-man show in 1981, and for its first off-Broadway production actor Jeff Daniels won an Obie Award. The play went on to worldwide performances, often used in an educational context. Smith filmed the stage version in 2008 with mixed success.

Now, Tim Robbins at the Actors’ Gang has turned the one-man show into an ensemble piece, using nine actors to interpret the story, sometimes as a hive-like embodiment of a single mind, other times with individuals as characters in Joe’s memories.

The great thing about the Actors’ Gang is that they are unafraid of risks. Every adaptation has struggled with the inherent problem of dramatizing a story with a main character that doesn’t speak and can barely move. A great deal of intelligence and creativity has gone into this production, utilizing choral elements and highly stylized movement on a bare set. The actors are talented, and the direction is meticulous. It is always interesting. But for me it is rarely emotionally involving. The intensity level ricochets from heightened anguish to manic inspiration to soft elegy, with few shades in between.

Others in the audience were moved certainly. I was not. Since I was a kid, I’ve always had a fear of being locked in. The idea of being unable to move and unable to communicate is horrifying. Perhaps in watching Johnny Got His Gun, I never allowed myself to give in fully, letting fear keep it at a distance. But even if it didn’t make me feel, it did make me think, about writing, about war, and about terror and loss.

photos by Ashley Randall
poster art by Nate Kitch

Johnny Got His Gun
The Actors’ Gang
The Ivy Substation
9070 Venice Blvd. in Culver City
ends on November 10, 2018
EXTENDED to November 14, 2018
for tickets, call 310.838.4264 or visit Actors’ Gang

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