Heroes are made by time, circumstance, and media hype. In Alan Ayckbourn’s thematically intricate, well-crafted, and beautifully rendered Hero’s Welcome, the playwright reveals that true heroism happens daily in our relationships, as we are called upon to love and forgive, and in the process, also forgive ourselves. Such un-sexy, un-glamorous actions require great emotional strength and the kind of courage that springs from the depths of humility and wisdom.
Ayckbourn, who also directed Hero’s Welcome, begins his tightly configured play by shining a spotlight on thirty-something Murray (a bang-up, smack-down, superb performance by Richard Stacey), and his wife, twenty-something Baba (in an adroitly, charming and profoundly developed portrayal by Evelyn Hoskins). Both are being interviewed at a TV studio. Murray is a war hero returning to his home town after his demonstrated courage battling “the rebels” in a conflict zone where he single-handedly rescued children held hostage in a burning hospital. As the interviewer questions him, Murray, who has been away from friends and family for 17 years, is abashed as he relates the circumstances of his rescue. His wife, the shy Baba, who clings to him as if for dear life, speaks very halting English. Murray met her in the conflict zone; they fell in love. He brought her to the U.K., assumptions which we determine during the interview.
Ayckbourn immediately stirs our interest when he establishes a major conflict with his protagonist discussed by the interviewer. Murray may be a national hero, but he left the town under a dark cloud of disgrace which the interviewer alludes to as “youthful indiscretions.” When Murray insists that he is going to stay and make a life for himself, the interviewer mentions that most probably everyone has “forgiven” him for “what he did,” and playfully concludes her questioning of him, “Home is the hero. I’m sure everyone is delighted to see you back.”
The interviewer’s words are ominous and serve as a profound bridge for the rest of the play. With the second part of the interviewer’s comment, Ayckbourn has brilliantly set up the arc of the character and plot development. In the play we will understand what this “hero’s return” signifies in the minds and hearts of former friends. We will discover whether they are “delighted to see him back” or wish he had been killed in the war.
Ayckbourn has set the symbolic theme with the interviewer’s phrase “home is the hero” (an ironic inversion of the mundane “the hero is home”). The inversion is thematically complex and threads throughout the drama, the humor, the character interactions, the climax to the conclusion. Ayckbourn’s choice of phrase suggests that much of what is truly heroic happens in the war zones of our minds, the interiors of our lives and the living spaces we share with those closest to us, even our spouses whom we may despise and do battle with or spouses whom we love and treasure.
Finally, Ayckbourn also clarifies from this vital interview what is at stake for Murray. Murray has returned, not only to make a life in the town for his wife, but for personal reasons: perhaps to expiate his guilt or perhaps to prove to himself that he is not the reprobate everyone once thought he was, or perhaps to set the record straight with friends who turned into foes. Perhaps, now he wishes to make peace with them. Murray has left a war behind, but he now has another one to fight. Like many wars, this one has no clear victors. Unlike many wars, this one will be waged for a long time. But at least Murray has someone to fight it with who loves him, Baba.
As the lights close down on the TV studio and the interview, they rise up on another section of the stage (sectioned off to intimate one of three interior living quarters of three different couples). This setting features the spacious, well appointed home of wealthy Brad (the wicked, upper classish, amoral, arrogant philanderer, excellently turned out by the versatile Stephen Billington), and his sheepish, high-pitched and emotionally devastated wife Kara (Charlotte Harwood is just great).
Throughout all of their interactions we see that Kara attempts to “keep a smiling, stiff upper lip” that sometimes turns to a grimace. From their conversation trip-wired by the TV interview which Kara saw, we learn that Brad and Murray were once close friends and competitors. But we gather that Brad will not necessarily be pleased to see Murray, whom he demeans as a “Wally.” We also are able to gauge the nature of the relationship Brad has with Kara, whom he brutally disparages. We are surprised at his response when she tells him to put away the rifle he uses for skeet shooting on their acres of property. He jokingly suggests it would be lucky for him if she should blow out her brains with it. His offhanded and callous remark is typical of Ayckbourn’s foreshadowing. It clues us to future developments between them.
In another area of the town (and section of the stage), Ayckbourn introduces us to Derek (Russell Dixon is good natured, kind, enthusiastic, genuine, and forthright), and Alice (Elizabeth Boag wonderfully transitions from bitterness, to sensitiveness and growing self-awareness to the beginnings of forgiveness, to inner isolation), who also discuss the TV interview. Derek who is older than Alice, has a toy train set he adores which runs through the kitchen and indeed, through every area of the house. The symbolism and significance of this is revealed later in the play along with the revelation of why Alice endures his toys without begrudging complaint. As they briefly discuss Murray’s return, we realize there is a tie between Alice and Murray, and the shadows on the water of discontent are deepening.
The scene then switches to Baba and Murray. Ayckbourn reveals the love between this young girl and older former soldier, to whom she refers as her “hero.” Together, with her convoluted English, as Baba tries with all her determination to learn quickly, both affirm that their new life in the town will be wonderful. Because of the well placed clues Ayckbourn has initially given, we are ready to roll with the punches we know are coming. Will it truly be a grand homecoming?
Ayckbourn stirs us with mystery and conflict. We become completely engaged in how events transpire to unveil bits and pieces of Murray’s past in his encounters with Brad, Derek, and Alice in all of their present glories and triumphs. Indeed, what Ayckbourn offers is a journey of revelation. We gradually discover what the dark cloud was as the intricate plot convolutions spiral out of control and the ones whom we most expect to be masking the truth, reveal it. And those who appear to be forthcoming are clever liars. We even get to watch Murray’s and Baba’s love tested when Brad exercises his sexual allure on Baba to satisfy a bet he makes with Derek that she, like many of the women he has conquered with his looks and charm, will be the easy mark she appears to be.
Ayckbourn’s characters gradually relieve themselves of the truth having sparred with their guilt over Murray. The unveilings (I am withholding all the specifics for the disclosures are a great pleasure to watch), which occur by degrees continually startle and intensify to a pinnacle of surprising action. The conclusion is unsettling. By then we know that the struggles in each of their lives will continue based upon a misunderstanding that has been engendered by Kara and Brad’s daughter, the dour, furious Simone (played by Charlotte Harwood), who must get her revenge on Baba and Murray for something which actually never happened.
And so it goes. Such misunderstanding often incites violence/wars, Ayckbourn points out. Whether individuals will allow themselves the luxury to hear the truth or gain understanding through love is unclear, though it can happen when one is raised in love and forgiveness as we see in Murray’s family and with his relationship with Baba. It is certainly not likely when lies, cruelty, and privilege (evidenced in the characterizations of Brad’s family and his relationship with Kara), enforce their way into family interactions and willfully work to destroy others’ happiness.
From beginning to end, Hero’s Welcome is a sterling production. The sets, props, staging, and lighting design work seamlessly to convey the characters lives. The directing and acting combine to make for a breathtaking, heart-wrenching finish. The themes Ayckbourn emphasizes about where war originates from, about love, regret, and the poison of unforgiveness, and about the purpose of artificial heroism for the sake of impersonal nationhood (these are a few themes; there are many more), will give one pause. This finest of Ayckbourn’s works reveals most importantly that without unsung heroes, i.e. loving, regenerating friends and partners in our everyday lives, we are left to face alone the impossible battles within.
This is an absolute must see. It runs until July 3rd at 59E59 Theaters.