Lantern Theater Company concludes its already successful season on a high note with an enchanting production of Tom Stoppard’s delightfully warm and surprisingly affecting comedy, Heroes. Adapted in 2005 from the acclaimed French playwright Gerald Sibleyras’ 2003 Le Vent des Peupliers (The Wind in the Poplars), Heroes is Stoppard at his most irresistible, penned with an intoxicating combination of grace, goodwill and simplicity.
The action takes place on the back terrace of a retirement home for veterans of France’s armed forces. It’s 1959, and World War I veterans Henri (Peter DeLaurier, in what may be the finest performance of his illustrious, award-winning career), Gustave (Dan Kern, in a thoughtful and fascinating portrayal) and Philippe (the excellent Londoner Mal Whyte, who has recently relocated to Philadelphia) are settling in to their twilight years with varying degrees of contentment. All three men are well past their physical prime, and each is challenged by a distinct disability that serves as a reminder of their time on the battlefield. Henri walks with a slight limp, even with the benefit of a leg brace. Philippe suffered a head injury, and the shrapnel that remains causes him to pass out with a regularity that is becoming more than an inconvenience. Physically, Gustave is the fittest member of the elderly trio. His frailty is emotional, and at times, he acts irrationally. For instance, he’s become unusually attached to the stone statue of a large dog that decorates the terrace—and, over the course of the play, emerges as an important, endearing fourth character.
Although the men enjoy each other’s company, they are bored with the routine at the rest home and decide to embark on an adventure. Unable to agree between going on a picnic in an adjoining field or embarking on a voyage to French Indochina, the three forge a compromise to bolt out to explore the poplar trees that adorn a distant hillside just in view from their terrace outpost.
A far cry from Stoppard’s epics or academically and historically sophisticated works like Arcadia, The Invention of Love and Coast of Utopia, Heroes isn’t as much a play about ideas as it is about people. In these marvelously realized characters, one of the world’s most versatile dramatists gives us three men that, despite their different temperaments, have a camaraderie that can only be shared by individuals who have known the hardship and horrors of war.
Its considerable humor arises from its quiet absurdity. For Heroes to work, it is essential that the actors repress any desire to go for cheap laughs by overplaying the characters’ eccentricities or taking too broad an approach to the physical comedy. It is a play that requires a very light touch, not only from the actors, but from the director as well.
One of the few local companies willing to nurture up-and-coming directors, Lantern handed Heroes’ directorial reigns to the 20-something M. Craig Getting, his first solo production at Lantern, and one that displays a deft touch that belies his age and relatively light resume. Not that he’s a complete novice: A local guy from Lower Merion, Getting has spent the past few seasons at Lantern doing what all aspiring directors should do: toiling backstage building sets, working on audio, involving himself in the theater’s education program and, most notably, serving as the assistant director alongside Kathryn MacMillan for the Lantern’s appealing 2011 staging of Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara.
Getting’s experience serves him well in his treatment of Stoppard’s comedy. Unlike many young directors intent on making a play “their own” by imprinting their vision on the script, it is clear that Getting’s goal is to present Heroes as Stoppard intended it to be seen and heard. He succeeds in establishing the play’s wonderfully original sense of reality, and his no-frills approach serves Heroes beautifully.
There are no earth-shattering plot twists here, and in the wrong hands, Heroes could come off as being too cute or sweetly nostalgic. Getting’s staging, however, doesn’t fall into that trap. Instead, it embraces the play’s charming intimacy. Buoyed by a trio of pitch-perfect performances, Lantern’s involving production allows us to be entirely content spending a couple of hours with these proud men who, despite their frailties, are determined that their final years of life are not devoid of adventure or joy.
Through June 16. $20-$38. St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow sts. lanterntheater.org