When Tom Stoppard adapted the French playwright Gérard Sibleyras’s 2003 comedy “Le Vent des Peupliers” into English, he was faced with one big problem. The title, “The Wind in the Poplars,” was too close to the title of the English children’s book series “The Wind in the Willows.”
So, the name of the English adaptation, first produced in 2005, became “Heroes,” but Stoppard said at the time that he didn’t really care for that title either. Without the poplars, see, the tale of three World War I veterans attempting to escape a French home for old veterans didn’t have the roots it was born with.
Hampton Theatre Company’s production of “Heroes,” which opened Thursday night, takes those poplars seriously. They are there, in a note in the program’s frontispiece, which reminds the audience that “the wonderful spirit of this tree has the ability to teach the average person how to make dreams and projects manifest quickly. The spirit of the poplar reminds people of the possibilities of life.”
The poplars are there in the Quixotic gleam in the eye of the adventurous but mad Gustave, played by Tom Gustin, in the opening scene that has his character gazing at the poplars he can see on a distant hill from a small terrace at the old veterans home. Gustave dreams of Indochina and he dreams of girls (all the old veterans dream of girls) and he dreams of reaching the poplars on the hill.
“Heroes” marks longtime HTC actor Andrew Botsford’s full-length directorial debut with the company, and the play seems well-suited to his sensibility. The three actors all turn in superb performances in roles that seem, well, downright Botsfordian: Intelligent, romantic men of a certain age who long to be taken seriously. Each of these well-cast men is fully drawn by Stoppard and played fully by the actors, with delightful nuances that charmed Friday’s audience.
George Loizides plays Philippe, a 10-year veteran of the home who suffers from frequent fainting spells, and whose paranoid belief that the head nun is trying to kill patients with the same birthdays gets the best of him. Henri, a 25-year-veteran of the home played by Cyrus Newitt, is the straight man to his two nutty cohorts. Philippe describes Henri early on as a dangerous “enthusiast,” and Henri is a near Boy Scout, who folds the blankets and plots the course for their escape to the poplar hill.
Gustave, who has only been in the home for six months, provides the fuel for his company’s desire for escape. Henri suggests they go on a picnic. Gustave scoffs and tells tales of Indochina. Philippe cowers and begs to not be put in the middle. And they compromise on a trip to the poplar trees, 60 kilometers away by road, but a far shorter distance if they take their tactical overland route.
If this play was “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Gustave would be McMurphy and the head nun, Sister Madeline, would be Nurse Ratched. But this play is not “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” and that’s just fine.
If this play were written by Hemingway, well, these Lost Generation veterans would have the same difficulty they have in discussing 1. Gustave’s failed marriage. 2. Philippe’s lack of a decent erection in six months. 3. Henri’s answer to the question of why he never married: he dreamed of becoming a picture framer (he never lived out the dream of being a picture framer either). But this play wasn’t written by Hemingway, and that’s just fine too.
“Heroes” is, in truth, a fast-paced, sometimes slapstick, laugh-a-minute comedy, and that’s where its beauty lies. The characters are on death’s door, but they’re played by men who are decades younger, both chronologically and in spirit. Their mental lives are as full and rich as their physical lives had been one time, generations earlier, when they were young men.
At one point in their preparations for escape, Gustave demands that Philippe get on his back to see if he can be carried when he has one of his fainting spells. The audience gasped as Philippe climbed on Gustav’s back and mock-fainted. Someone sitting behind me said “Wow, he’s strong.”
As strong as a poplar tree.
“Heroes” will continue Thursdays through Sundays through January 26 at the Quogue Community Hall, 125 Jessup Avenue, Quogue. Thursday and Friday night shows will be at 7 p.m., Saturday night shows will be at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees will be at 2:30 p.m. More information and tickets are available here.