Based on various biographies and histories of gays in the military (Allan Berube's Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II and Randy Shilts' Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military, to name two -- nine more sources are listed in the program's selected bibliography), Combat! covers the years from 1940-1945 and skillfully interweaves numerous characters. Featured are: Marine privates John Herrick (Christian Milne) and Mark Thomas (Jeremy Proctor), who meet in basic training and fall in love; Dr. Harry Stack Sullivan (Paul Tena), a psychiatrist and closeted gay who, with Dr. Winfred Overholser (Corey Schaffer), another psychiatrist, introduces the question of mental fitness to the recruitment process; Jimmy (Gabriel Macen), Sullivan's lover; WAC Lt. Susan Miller (Kegan Stedwell) and her lover, Maj. Beverly Franklin (Elsa Wolthausen); and Marine Drill Sgt. Jake Tower (John Fisher), who comes out under fire and is rewarded for his heroism with a notorious Section 8 discharge, separating him without benefits from the service as "undesirable."
That nearly everyone in Combat! turns out to be lesbian or gay shifts what is often a powerful drama into a rollicking and spirited -- here comes that word again -- entertainment. (It reminded me of long-ago evenings at gay bars, listening to gossip about which movie stars, politicians, and public figures were gay and how the storyteller knew it for an indisputable fact.)
The ideas that drive Combat! are, in 1996, neither new nor complicated. The anguished national debate that peaked in the months following the 1992 election, about whether or not gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military, brought much of the play's information to light: that gays have always been a presence in the armed forces -- as in every other arena of society -- and that they have served with exactly the same degree of valor and distinction, no more or less, as their heterosexual peers.
If we use Chekhov's definition of the purpose of theater -- to raise the question, not to answer it -- Fisher does not dramatize these issues as much as simply voice them. He injects his point of view -- that it is outrageous to deny anyone the right to serve his or her country based on sexual orientation -- into the mouths of virtually every character on the stage, even those with a negative bias, whose opinions are easily dismissed as foolish or ignorant. And because it is hard (if not impossible) to imagine who in the solidly liberal Berkeley audience would argue with him, the play becomes the equivalent of an evangelist preaching to the converted.
This relentless desire to hammer home certain points and to teach the little-known history of homosexuality weakens the dramatic impact. The polemic characters -- especially Harry and Jimmy -- are incomplete human beings whose stories are fuzzy and underrealized. Jimmy, for instance, seems to be the liberated half of the couple who preaches the lessons Oscar Wilde failed to learn, reminding Harry that Wilde "destroyed himself because he denied himself." But Jimmy doesn't engage in dialogue, he delivers harangues. Then he disappears altogether, avoiding the obviously brewing conflict with his lover.
Although Harry, too, indulges in seemingly endless instructional lectures, he is the play's most complicated character. He alone truly struggles with the questions of identity and ethics that Fisher raises. Finally, unable either to come out of the closet or to control the rampant persecution of gays that his mental-health addition to the enlistment process has inaugurated, Harry kills himself. But there is a disclaimer at the end: Though the bare facts of Sullivan's life (minus clear evidence of homosexuality) are a matter of record, the reason for his suicide is mere conjecture.
Basing the play on one crystal-clear political position numbs the message. We find ourselves checking our watches while the preacher of the moment bombards us with arguments. We get restless as various figures make the same discovery over and over again: that gays and lesbians are just folks after all, that their sexual orientation cannot possibly be a threat of any kind to the military or to the great democracy it protects.
It's impossible not to be reminded of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, another epic drama that includes real historical figures among its fictional characters. But where Kushner uses Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg as real-life points of reference for his creative inventions, Fisher seems constrained. (His whimsical addition of a Mysterious Stranger [Jane Paik], an Asian woman playing such historical figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gandhi, is more distracting than diverting.) And where Kushner gives Louis Ironson political diatribes that utterly contradict his actions and attempt to make up for his inability to do the decent thing and care for his ailing lover, Fisher's gays are noble-to-a-fault heroes. Where Kushner allows for human complexity -- and thereby creates great drama -- Fisher simplifies and reduces.
But Combat! succeeds as sheer entertaining spectacle of enormous scope and range. It also succeeds in adding the homosexual as a generic character to the WWII John Wayne-Hell-Is-for-Heroes genre.
Fisher's confident staging is very much at home on Kate Edmunds' brilliantly simple set: The stage floor is painted like a military topographical map, and a multilevel system of trap doors and elevating platforms turns it into a Pacific island, a landing craft, a parade ground, an office, etc. All of which are greatly enhanced by David K.H. Elliott's lighting, which gives us shocking flashes of battles, tender moonlight, and splendidly garish ballrooms.
The performers -- it's a huge cast with many recognizable as Fisher's by now familiar resident company -- acquit themselves well, except when they get bogged down in polemics (as frequently occurs with Paul Tena's Sullivan and Gabriel Macen's Jimmy). As the lesbian WACs, Kegan Stedwell and Elsa Wolthausen lend spirit and warmth to otherwise token roles. Jeremy Proctor endows his gay and proud enlisted Marine with dignity and strength, and Christian Milne is effective and affecting as Proctor's naive lover. Darryl Stephens is splendid as the lone black soldier, sent by government order to integrate the combat troops.
As an actor playing Sgt. Tower, Fisher is buoyant, playfully maniacal, and energetic, and successfully manages the transition from abusive drill sergeant to platoon leader and hero. Still, Fisher-the-playwright needs to get out the scissors. But Fisher-the-director demonstrates a sophistication of ability and an exuberant, distinctly cinematic imagination. Pass the popcorn.
Combat! An American Melodrama runs through March 10 at Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley; call (510) 642-9988.