Early in Salt Lake Acting Company’s production of “Streetlight Woodpecker,” the protagonist Benji (played by Stefan Espinosa) mistakes the pecking of a neighborhood woodpecker for the sound of distant machine-gun fire. Benji, who has just returned from active duty with debilitating injuries, struggles to readjust to his hometown of Philadelphia. While you can’t get a subject much heavier, the relationships that develop between Benji, his best friend Sam (Carleton Bluford), and his sister (Olivia Custodio) create a work that combines intensity, hilarious dialogue, and warmth. “Streetlight Woodpecker” (a world premiere for playwright Shawn Fisher), examines the experience of veterans with PTSD and more widely, the negativities of how manhood is defined (or not defined) within society. Benji’s sometimes innocent, sometimes vicious hunt for the woodpecker parallels the play’s search for meaning in an absurd world of suffering, lost faith, and dwindling patriotism.
Director Richie Call’s balanced handling of tense and sardonic material presents a genuine look at the lives of veterans that society is often unwilling to acknowledge. In conjunction with an exhibition of art by veterans at the SLAC venue, “Streetlight Woodpecker” examines important wartime themes. The detailed, nostalgic backyard set (designed by Dennis Hassan), reminds the audience of their own suburban adolescences. The tension produced between the familiar (the American hometown) and the foreign (the tragedies of war) never loosens its grip on viewers and sees the plot through to a nail-biting final scene.
One of the stand-out elements in “Streetlight Woodpecker” is Fisher’s writing, which builds tension with well-structured scenes steeped in the subtext of unresolved interactions. In stage directions and pieces of dialogue, Fisher reveals details about the characters’ complex histories, especially Benji’s and Sam’s. In one memorable scene, Benji’s sister, Elizabeth, announces that it would be too inconvenient to move Benji into her house, but that the family’s Catholic priest will soon arrive to talk Benji out of staying with the generous Sam. Elizabeth’s twisted rationale is gradually revealed: she and the rest of the family oppose the situation because two men living together isn’t “natural.” We are left to wonder about the siblings’ dysfunction, the paranoid assessment of Sam’s and Benji’s friendship, and whether the priest will ever enter the scene: In this instance, the clergyman pulls a Godot.
Each of the actors plays their character with subtle attention to detail and visceral conviction. Stefan Espinosa moves around the stage with the broken body of an injured soldier, hoisting his stiff leg into an ice bucket, making the audience wince whenever he spasms in pain. However, in many moments, he also projects the remnants of pride and determination still present beneath Benji’s largely broken spirit. On the play’s inaugural night, the actors nailed the Philadelphian dialect (a credit to the coaching of Adrianne Moore), which didn’t feel over-emphasized. Espinosas’ and Custodio’s movements were at times nervous in the first half, but all actors hit their stride in the second. Overall, the cast deftly handled the tragic and the comic moments, moving between the radically different tones in “Streetlight Woodpecker” without a hitch.
The play’s characters communicate society’s expectations and the impossibility of fully conforming to them. Over the course of the play, Benji enacts his masculinity to the point of stereotype, drinking beer, going to a gentlemen’s club, and threatening an innocent bird. However, Sam takes care of the house, cooks elaborate meals, and plays the role of nurturer. Elizabeth bullies and denigrates Sam for his refusal to be traditionally masculine, and her own brother for getting himself injured in the quest to affirm his manhood. Actor Carleton Bluford’s Sam projects unapologetic tenderness, and his actions in caring for Benji display a heroism that their Catholic neighborhood and society ignore—almost as much as they turn a blind eye to the needs of the “damaged” veteran. The actors create nuanced characters, which show society’s and history’s often shallow assessment of worth and gender, but also reveal the warmth and humor that redeems humanity again and again.
Streetlight Woodpecker, a world premiere by Shawn Fisher, is at Salt Lake Acting Company through March 6.
Hannah McBeth studied art history, classics, and Mediterranean archaeology before getting a Master’s at Cambridge University. She enjoys writing, hiking, and traveling to far-off places. Follow her on Twitter @hannahmcbee.