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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