You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Word for Word at Z Space, revels in the power of theater. Linen streamers descending from ceiling to floor are variously the border between the waking and dreaming world, sheets on a bed, and a fresh roll of toilet paper. Spotlights fading in and out on different characters amidst an eerie soundtrack make film's device of montage actually look good onstage. And a costume, in a pinch, becomes a set of twins.
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Yet for all its theatricality, the play has a very untheatrical source: You Know When the Men Are Gone is a collection of short stories by Siobhan Fallon, and in bringing two of them -- "The Last Stand" and "Gold Star" -- to the stage, Word for Word doesn't adapt the text for theater, hence the company's name. Now in its 20th year, Word for Word is dedicated to performing fiction, not fiction that's been changed for the stage, but fiction in its original form.
Some audiences will balk at this idea: Aren't stories meant to be read? It's true that making a script verbatim from a story has certain limitations. Many stories, like both of Fallon's in this production, are told from one character's point of view, which means that, onstage, all the other characters can look less fully fleshed out, mere figments or projections of the protagonist's mind rather than autonomous individuals. Also, because the copious narration essentially becomes stage directions, it can seem like there is little freedom for directors and actors to make choices. If your line includes the phrase "she said softly," then you almost have to perform the actual dialogue in the way the line dictates.
But in another way, Word for Word's method also gives artists much more freedom than a regular script does. They get to decide who says everything; even the parts of the story that are in dialogue needn't be said by their purported speaker. Word for Word never has a narrator off to the side, simply reciting the story as the characters act it out. Characters make narration into living, breathing text; a description of a character might be delivered as an attack or a fantasy.
Fallon, who herself is the wife of an army officer, is concerned in these stories with life at home after a soldier's deployment. If they cover well-worn ground for their subject matter -- the surprise when lovers who have been apart for a long time have different lives and dreams; the alienation of grief -- they are simple and limpid in style, still giving the actors, under the direction of Joel Mullennix and Amy Kossow, respectively, plenty of space to make the characters their own.
Fallon is particularly astute in documenting group dynamics, as when a bus of returning soldiers arrives and different ladies' volunteer groups look down on one another, or when, during a wife's mourning, visitors offer consolation that's variously conniving, empty, inept, and accidental. Word for Word's ensemble is, as usual, excellent. Chad Deverman is particularly strong as Kit, a returned soldier. He experiences his new, domestic life with the emotional highs and lows of warfare. A touch is ecstasy; a failure to read his mind is a wound he bears by grinding his teeth and keeping his fist ever ready to swing a punch. Roselyn Hallett is equally compelling as his conflicted girlfriend. Helena is drawn away from him, and not for conventionally strong reasons, yet Hallett, through the force of her sadness, never makes Helena seem like an abandoner.
Although "The Last Stand" and "Gold Star" were not written for the stage, they have proven fertile ground for the creative minds at Word for Word. In their hands, Fallon's words are enjoying a fruitful second life.
You Know When the Men Are Gone continues through Feb. 24 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F. Admission is $30-$55.