Theater has always been a place for resurrecting difficult, contested memories and reviving long-vanished people in the flesh. In Basil Kreimendahl’s Orange Julius, memories, both traumatic and intimate, crowd the stage, occupying the entire time span of a play that unfolds entirely in the past. Kreimendahl’s drama is a sympathetic, eloquent (and, at times, repetitive) effort to grapple with family, gender identity, and the legacy of the Vietnam War.
Nut (Jess Barbagallo) is the young transmasculine child of Julius (Stephen Payne), who served in Vietnam. Julius largely bears the physical and psychic scars of wartime trauma silently, the reverberations of combat emerging in sudden bursts of misplaced anger. Later in life, he develops cancer, a result of exposure to Agent Orange. Alternately narrating scenes and stepping into them, Nut probes the pains and quiet pleasures of an Eighties childhood: watching a sister (Irene Sofia Lucio) carefully crimp her hair; staring at HGTV as the siblings’ mom (Mary Testa) cares for her husband and for Nut’s ailing grandparents. Now growing older, Nut — who was assigned female at birth — begins to identify as a son, not a daughter, to Julius. Nut starts working out; Nut takes that sister to a drag king show. Attempting to connect with some missing part of self or heritage, Nut dabbles in past-life regression.
In Dustin Wills’s elegant production, this story unfolds mostly in a grimy suburban garage featuring a massive sliding door flanked by two smaller doors through which characters emerge, then vanish back into the past. Frequently, the garage door also serves as an opening into another world — a series of imaginative flashbacks in which Nut appears in Vietnam alongside Julius. The air fogs up, lights flash, helicopters rumble. Nut’s father and a compatriot play cards and fantasize about the lives they’ll lead, particularly the food and sex they’ll indulge in, once they’re back home. Nut mimics their postures, watching this progenitive past but struggling to locate its unspoken facets — a project that becomes even more pressing once Julius begins to deteriorate, and then to die.
There’s a lot to like about Orange Julius: its articulate, forthright personal narrative; its attention to veterans’ experience; its foregrounding of a trans character without making Nut’s transition the sole focus of the plot. That Kreimendahl resists inserting present-day drama into Nut’s story, allowing the play to live entirely in the before, shows admirable restraint. Wills’s cast, in particular Barbagallo and Testa, offers detailed, sympathetic portraits of Kreimendahl’s struggling family.
Still, Kreimendahl’s play would benefit from a ruthless edit: As Nut’s story continues, scenes and themes begin to echo, then repeat — making the viewer long, by the end, for some shift in the drama’s structure — and fewer flashback scenes would make each journey to Vietnam more striking. But painful memories have wills of their own. They’re easy to summon, hard to control, and, once onstage, demand the time and attention to come to life in the present tense.
By Basil Kreimendahl
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place
Through February 12