With over 4000 Americans killed in Iraq since the United States declared its “war on terror” in the Middle East, now seems a particularly appropriate time to remember the Vietnam War and its more than 47,000 American casualties (not to mention the over 300,000 wounded in action). 


Tracers, John Difusco’s 1980 drama Tracers does just that. This “memory play,” written by 8 returning Vietnam vets, makes the nightmare that was the Vietnam War seem as real as today’s headlines from Iraq. 
Following several local 99-seat theater productions, Tracers now goes big stage in a visually stunning and superbly acted and directed production at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse. Executive director James A. Blackman, III is right on the money when he tells audience members that this is a production equal to those at the Mark Taper Forum, something made even more remarkable by the fact that it is a “non-professional” production (i.e., none of its cast are members of Actors Equity). 
Set in 1968 and unraveling in a series of a dozen and a half scenes, Tracers follows 6 draftees/enlistees through their tour of duty in Vietnam, beginning with a grueling 18 weeks of boot camp. A foul-mouthed and sadistic drill instructor (played with relentless intensity by Michael Yavnieli) subjects the six actors to near-torture by forcing them to do hundreds of non-stop push-ups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks on stage over the course of a ten to fifteen minute scene, doubtless the most physically exhausting any of them have ever played, or will ever play in the course of their stage careers. 

When the scene finally, mercifully comes to an end and the D.I. remains alone on stage delivering one of the many monologs he and the other actors will recite over the course of the performance, we see that the sergeant’s madness has some method to it and that this monster is human after all. 80% of his “maggots” will become targets, he tells us, and the 18 weeks he has to turn teenagers into soldiers is nothing compared to the 18 months of basic training Soviet soldiers undergo, and the lifelong training of the Vietcong. 
In a truly “you are there” production, Tracers exposes war’s day-to-day horrors (and boredom), the drugs and alcohol these soldiers medicate themselves with in order to survive, the sex (and love) they seek from Vietnamese bargirls, and the danger of death that lurks behind every vine in the Vietnamese jungle.

Among Tracer’s most powerful and affecting scenes are:
•A soldier searching among countless scattered corpses for the one which matches a finger he has found, in order to insure that the bodies returned to the States be as whole as possible.
•Another soldier learning to his dismay that he has impregnated a Vietnamese girl. At first he claims only to have been with a scant two times, and though he later ups the figure to five, it still seems inconceivable to him that he is to be a father.

•A returned vet facing imminent death from cancer most likely caused by the defoliant Agent Orange.  That the soldier’s two daughters were born with severe defects only adds to his agony.
A sign in the lobby advises those concerned about the language used in the production to take their concerns to the box office. In fact, it is hard to imagine any play in which the F-word is used more often than it is in Tracers. In one of the play’s most realistically written monologs, every third word begins with F and ends with K, with a UC in the middle. Just about every other profanity is used in profusion as well. To pretty up the language would be to deny the reality of wartime soldier speech.
The Hermosa Beach Playhouse has assembled a flawless cast which includes Nick Cimiluca as Little John (an ironic nickname, as the muscular blond towers above the others), Jeremy Ordaz as Baby San (the runt of the litter), and Sean W. Ryal as Habu, the platoon’s lone African American. All are excellent as is the aforementioned Yavnieli.
In the role of Professor, so dubbed for his bookishness, Julian Colletta makes a particularly strong impression as a young man who finds himself a soldier due solely to the draft and thus seems the most out of place. Matthew Koehler (as Scooter, the redhead next door) follows a series of recent musical theater roles with a straight dramatic performance, and a fine one at that. Koehler’s agonized monolog following the death of a fellow soldier is devastating, and superbly performed. Travis Hammer has only one scene as Doc, the hippie-dippie drug dealer, but he makes it a memorable one.

Finally, the largest and most pivotal role belongs to the sensational Sean Hoagland.  The young actor plays Dinky Dau, who we know from the first scene returned to the States in a wheelchair as did Ron Kovic, of Born On The Fourth Of July fame. A bundle of manic energy, Hoagland recalls a young Marlon Brando or Sean Penn. He has many memorable moments in Tracers, but one of the strongest is also one of the quietest, when Dinky Dau gets a sucker punch of a Dear John letter from his girlfriend Cheryl, for whom absence did not make the heart grow fonder.
A play like Tracers needs a strong director, and John Drouillard fills this role to perfection.  Drouillard packs the stage with action, energy, and movement, yet is equally adept as guiding the smaller, more intimate scenes and monologs. Just as the D.I. made soldiers out of his “maggots,” so Drouillard has made soldiers out of his talented civilians.  (Note: Ryal did actually serve 8 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.)
Other recent productions of Tracers have been staged on small stages with limited budgets. Not the case here, and Hermosa Beach’s production shows that size does indeed matter, or at least count for something. The large stage features a particularly fine set design by Christopher Beyries, which uses scattered crates as bunks, hills, etc. and is draped with netting which extends into the auditorium. Karen L. Cornejo’s excellent costumes show us the before, during, and after of our soldiers’ military lives.  Erik Bleuer and Kevin Gold’s sound design fills the theater with the noises of battle and songs of the late 60s.  Greywolf has choreographed a beautiful “Ghost Dance/The Resurrection” which opens the show. Strongest of all the design elements is Michael Tushous’ (the engaging star of The Nerd) lighting design, whose colors evoke the hot tropical jungle and the nightmarish dreams of the soldiers, and surround the audience with the flashes of detonated explosives.
Most of Tuesday’s audience was old enough to remember World War II.  Hopefully, those too young for Vietnam to be anything other than a chapter in a history book will also make it a point to see Tracers. With our country once again mired in an ill-advised and deadly conflict overseas, Tracers needs to be seen by our nation’s future leaders. Giving its soldiers the respect they richly deserve, Tracers makes it perfectly clear that one can “support our troops” without supporting a war which sends them home in body bags.

Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave @ Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach.

–Steven Stanley
June 3, 2008
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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