Heaven Kuwait

Gunfighter: A Gulf War Chronicle

We two kings: James Ellison and Loren Taylor in River Stage’s production of <i>Gunfighter: A Gulf War Chronicle.</i>

We two kings: James Ellison and Loren Taylor in River Stage’s production of Gunfighter: A Gulf War Chronicle.

Rated 5.0

Bush is in the White House. America is at war in the Middle East. And the only glimpse of the conflict we get is through sanitized daily dollops on the evening news. Not much has changed in the last 10 years, and the latest world events must seem particularly eerie to award-winning playwright Mark Medoff, whose riveting play Gunfighter: A Gulf War Chronicle debuts at River Stage.

The Gulf War introduced the American public to a new form of warfare. It was the first live televised war, one projected home in sound bites and mesmerizing computer-accurate bombings displayed by eerie green-tinted infrared videos. We had a short, sweet, high-tech victory—nothing too messy or unpalatable, a clean sweep. At least that’s what we were told.

But in Gunfighter, Medoff explores some dark secrets, lies and videotapes of a particular incident. He tells the true story of an Apache helicopter gunfighter caught in his own personal war when he realizes he’s not only the triggerman, but also the fall guy, for friendly fire deaths.

Gunfighter is drama at its finest—a theatrical event not to be missed with its mesmerizing story, eloquent script, inspired production choices and a talented cast whose absorbing performances take you on an unforgettable journey. This is an incredibly ambitious production, with overlapping dialogues, flashbacks, a 20-plus member cast, and live video shots, taped news clips and other video montages played on a nine-screen video monitor with Dolby surround sound—and it pays off royally.

Medoff, author of numerous award-winning plays and movies such as Children of a Lesser God, first workshopped a draft of Gunfighter at River Stage’s Playwright’s Festival of New Works in 1999. After rewriting and fine-tuning the play, he returns Gunfighter for its world premiere here—an exciting nod to Sacramento’s emerging presence on the theater map.

Gunfighter is a multi-interpreted story told by different viewpoints. We have the cocky, arrogant gunfighter Lt. Col. Jack Hackett (Eric Wheeler); the cynical news correspondent Erin Siedman (Deborah O’Brien); Jack’s wife (Laura Mattice); Jack’s fellow gunfighters including the self-destructive Lash LaRue (Bill Voorhees); and various self-important lieutenants, majors and commanders including the credit-taking, finger-pointing Gen. Wayland Patterson (Loren Taylor).

The issues explored are many: How much should the army rely on technology? (“It’s designed to hit targets, not identify them.”) How accurate is the technology? When does the human factor come into play? Is there any room for on-the-spot decisions? What’s the difference between an order and a guideline? And, as the central theme, who’s to blame when things go awry?

Every performance is right on target, and though there are too many to list, the standout is Eric Wheeler, who brilliantly multi-layers Hackett as he goes from cocky to despair, anger to shame, leaving his shadow on the audience for days afterward.

The fine work of the production crew is present throughout. Pulsating music and synchronized cast members bring a taut tension to the helicopter scenes. And the set is an inspired juxtaposition to all the hectic action—a bare stage with sand projected on the floor and wall, turning red at ominous moments, while the only props are oil barrels that transform into helicopters, jeeps, tables and a newsroom.