Feeling History

The extraordinary Touch the Names, currently in production at Ensemble Theatre Company, pulls the audience into the shadows on a wall. The wall is the Vietnam War Memorial, and the shadows are the lost lives recorded there. An interplay of light and darkness runs throughout this series of poignant monologues with musical interludes as six actors and a musician seek to evoke authentic memories of men and women both killed and deeply affected by the Vietnam War. The genesis of its emotional power is in the tens of thousands of letters left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial since 1982. They are what inspired director Randal Myler to make a tapestry of these voices, all of which weave distinct threads of loss and grief, and preserve both personal memories and a crucial time in world history. There is beauty in the delicate balance between the various narratives and the blues lyrics written and performed by the gifted Chic Street Man. His soothing voice and gentle guitar strumming accompany and illuminate the stories of the individual characters, all of whom address their loved ones as vividly as if they were present. The music fades in the background as a mother presses firmly on her son’s name engraved on the wall. A nurse who cared for countless soldiers mourns her inexperience when she begins her monologue by saying, “I was only nineteen.”

Others seek forgiveness. A veteran who has slain a Vietnamese soldier in close combat brings a picture of the man he killed and his young daughter to the wall to release his burden of guilt and sorrow. In the show, gifts and tokens are also left at the wall, just as they are brought daily to the memorial in real life: a varsity letter, shrapnel from a brother’s knee, an army knife, pictures, and letters.

Each member of this inclusive community is portrayed with sensitivity and compassion by the wonderful cast. Kem Saunders, as an African-American soldier, successfully blends anguish with humor, while Tria Xiong, as a Vietnamese woman, reminisces movingly about her separation at a young age from her beloved mother. The mother-and-daughter scene with Gretchen Evans and Annie Golden is among the many moments that express the power of enduring love. Indeed, this show is about love and vulnerability, as Randy Ryan’s and Thomas Lyons’s characters each convey in their own intimate conversations with the dead. We are honored to have the West Coast premiere of Touch the Names in Santa Barbara. The piece is a cathartic experience, but inevitably, it also questions the high cost of a war.

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