"It's really become a post office open 24 hours a day," says playwright Randal Myler, referring to the messages left for those who died in Vietnam. He had a rare opportunity to read many of the letters firsthand when he spent nearly a week at a Maryland warehouse run by the National Park Service. Closed to the public, the facility is where items left at the wall are sorted and stored. Out of Myler's experience there came Touch the Names: Letters to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the world premiere of which is May 12 at the Cleveland Play House.
It's a performance piece, rather than a play, in which the actors deliver lines but don't interact with one another. Myler, of Denver, collaborated with Seattle-based singer/songwriter Chic Street Man, who composed the music and plays guitar in the show.
Myler stresses that he did not change the letters that he chose to include. The words are by those "who have lost the most and said the least," he says. "It's the real deal. You couldn't write anything quite so real. It's poetic in its simplicity."
Adds Street Man: "When people are moved to write something from inside, it will often have a poetic component. It has the power."
Myler was intrigued by the array of items that people leave behind -- "a can of maple syrup, 77 cents in change, the Congressional Medal of Honor, a canteen, lots of snapshots" -- as well as the mystery surrounding some of them. "Seventy-seven cents means something only to the person who brought it and the name on the wall," he says.
At one point, he wondered what effect all this had on park service employees who deal with it every day. "Doesn't it get to you?" he asked the curator, who responded: "What -- being surrounded by all this love?"
"That clearly became the point of the piece to me," Myler says. "It's not heavy, depressing. I don't look at it that way. There's an amazing amount of love and resilience," both of which find their way into the production.
What audiences won't find is a political stance. There is no anti-war or pro-war message, says Myler. "All points of view are represented. We aren't saying who's right, wrong, or indifferent. Like the wall, it's a mystery."
Beyond theater, there will be other Vietnam-related activities at the Play House in May. The Moving Wall -- a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- will be in the parking lot until May 20, available for viewing day and night. A reading of the names will take place daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. In addition, WCPN-FM/90.3 will air Touch the Names in its entirety at 7 p.m. on the observed Memorial Day (May 29) and post it on its website (www.wcpn.org).
Myler says the wall is a fabulous reminder for those who have forgotten the cost of the war, not in terms of dollars but lives. "The wall is an itemized bill of sale," he says. "My dad fought in World War II. Thirty years later, my brother fought in Vietnam, and here it is 30 years later. It's a good reminder not to do it again, or if we do it again, how the losses are tremendous."