Theatre Knoxville Uncovers Existential Absurdity in Tom Stoppard's 'Heroes'

Last weekend proved that even before the University of Tennessee's Clarence Brown Theatre has shaken off the holidays, Knoxville can still rate quite a diversity of live drama. Five days in a row, the Tennessee Theatre showed a musical with about 50 actors, enormous sets, a pit orchestra, and some astonishing special effects. In all, about 10,000 people paid more than half-a-million dollars to see the 25th-anniversary traveling revival of Les Miserables.

Meanwhile, in an old storefront a few blocks north, at the lonesomer end of Gay Street, audiences of hardly 1 percent the size were watching another play, equally French but somewhat quieter, about three old men and a stone dog facing their delusions together.

Heroes is Tom Stoppard's translation and adaptation of contemporary French playwright Gerald Sibleyras' best-known work, Le Vent de Peupliers (2004). Premiering in London about six years ago, Stoppard's English version earned critical raves.

It's a slight but thoughtful play in six scenes, which is really the same scene: the terrace of an old soldiers' home somewhere in small-town France. There Henri (Bruce Borin), Gustave (Greg Congleton), and Philippe (Robby Griffith), veterans of the Great War whose knowledge of each other is mainly cordial, sit on benches in the late summer, 41 years after the war, and contemplate their lives, the cemetery, and, at some considerable distance, a hilltop alive with poplars.

Theatre Knoxville Downtown is a fun and intimate place to see a play, with real theater seats built on tiers, old but comfortable. Decaf's on the house, and they're well-stocked with dollar soft drinks. And it was fun to see these particular three actors, agreeably familiar faces who have each been involved in community theater for more than a couple of decades, onstage together. If they're not old by your definition, they've gotten to the point that they can play old without much makeup. A fourth veteran local thespian is the director, Zack Allen, who doubles as stage jockey.

The mostly gentle comedy about aging and vanity comes with just enough rowdy sex talk to leave no doubt it's a modern composition. They recall the war, vaguely, and speculate about what women really want, until conversation turns to an adventure away from the terrace, to the hilltop they've seen with binoculars. (There's some attention to detail; discussing routes, they consult a real vintage Michelin-guide map.)

Nothing much happens, at least not by Les Mis standards—but slowly, surprising bits of each character unfolds. Each man bears his own cross. Henri, the jovial optimist, hobbles with a cane and coughs. Gustave, the bitter cynic, grouses about his daily routine of "tepid soup." Philippe tries to make peace between the two, but, hampered by old German shrapnel in his skull, occasionally passes out.

We realize that one character who seems pompous and worldly wise, casually proposing an impossible trip to Indochina, is at once fascinated and terrified of the outside world "where it's all going on." Another character's dramatic murmurings seem a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder—until, finally asked, he explains that they're something quite different.

The three are well cast, Griffith as an eccentric sort of straight man, Congleton as the snarling poseur. Borin, longtime drama teacher at Roane State, is an underappreciated local treasure. He's become an expert at playing the old man we all want to be someday: wise, tolerant, resigned to fate but still passionately engaged, somewhere on a continuum between Will Geer and Monty Woolley, but with his own touch.

Comparisons to Waiting for Godot are obvious. Aging Frenchmen sitting on benches, anticipating something that never happens. Maybe the poplars beyond the cemetery represent a conception of heaven. This isn't as bleak or, probably, as provocative as Beckett, but like that crypto-existentialist's work, occasionally breaks through the mundane reality of mere sadness to absurdity, which can make the human condition seem pretty hilarious. The script leaves some things left unexplained, a couple of perplexing loose ends. Two characters develop unrelated delusions about the same stone dog. Then again, he is, after all, their only durable companion.

What happens to these men happens to most of us. As we hear news about contemporaries dying, we start noticing our surviving contemporaries are going a little dotty, we talk about things we'll probably never do, and find solace in recounting stories of the past and observations of nature, ever changing, ever the same.