In their Footsteps.
Directed by Carly Fisher. Theatre Travels. The Bakehouse Theatre. Adelaide Fringe. March 8-12 2022
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
The tears well up at the end of Theatre Travels’ verbatim performance of In Their Footsteps. These are not tears of joy. They are tears of compassion for the American women who served in Vietnam and about whom this show has been created. They are also tears for the victims of war, the men, women and children whose lives have been and tragically continue to be changed forever and for those who have lost their lives in war.
In Their Footsteps is told from the perspectives of five women from America who volunteered to serve for three years with the Red Cross. They were ordinary women who went to Vietnam as nurses, librarians, couriers, intelligence officers and administrative personnel. Known as the Donut Dollies, they were also there to raise morale and lift the spirits of the soldiers serving and suffering in combat.
Theirs is a story we do not hear, and in this excellent one piece of verbatim theatre draws on the real experiences of ordinary women who chose to be selected to go to Vietnam to assist the Red Cross in the war effort. Theatre Travels has successfully captured the naivety, the fun, the danger and the consequences of their experience. The talented and collaborative ensemble under the direction of Carly Fisher have woven a tightly connected account of the real lives of the women that they interviewed, and out of that has emerged stories of comradeship, courage, self-sacrifice, terror and alienation by their countrymen and women back home. It is a tale all too familiar, but Theatre Travels have given it a profound significance by focusing on the lives of the women who served.
Theirs is a very human story. Ordinary women from small towns across America, out of a sense of duty and caring entered a war zone to support the military and care for the wounded. In Their Footsteps is insightful and powerful in its authenticity. It is a story of humour, comradeship, risk, disillusionment and rejection, the gamut of experience usually told about the men who went to war and this time seen through the eyes of the women.
In one hour the five actresses vividly describe the gamut of experience from the excitement of the prospect of adventure to the unwelcome homecoming. There is humour in the account of one of Ann (Linda Nicholls-Gidley) smuggling pigeons into the camp so that she can entertain with her magic tricks. There is the release through the music of Led Zeppelin for Judy (Nola Bartolo) and the celebration of Christmas and Hanukah. And there is the night on the town. But there is always the danger such as Lily (Suzann James)giving a lift to an MP without thinking about the consequence or Judy wearing a bright Santa Claus outfit in sight of a possible sniper or being in Vietnam at the time of the Tet Offensive and the later battle at Da Nang air base. The lives of the women who serve are also at risk. War does not discriminate. But men may. Lucki (Rowena Robinson) works in intelligence. When she predicts a deadly offensive, the men in her bureau ignore the warning at their peril. Is it because she is black? Is it because she is a woman Sexism and racism dictate male attitude and Lucki is proven right, resulting in unnecessary death.
Fisher keeps the action moving and the true accounts are skillfully interwoven into the dialogue between the women, avoiding the pitfall of monologue performance. The drama is active and engaging, while remaining authentic and impactful. In a world where innocence is swiftly lost, the dark side of war becomes more apparent. The unsolved murders of women allegedly by soldiers reveals the heinous crimes of war against women. It is in the latter part of In Their Footsteps that the true impact of this production can be felt. Nixon’s broken promise on an invasion of Cambodia leads to disillusionment with policy and politicians. The use of Agent Orange leads to fear and consequential disease and death. And denial of the part the women played in their country’s cause is evident in the refusal to be given a float in the eventual honouring parade. It was their compatriots, male and female who could share the accolades they deserved and the women’s names on the War Memorial that stood as testament to their service and their courage and sacrifice. It may go some way to alleviating guilt that Jeanne (Sonya Kerr) felt at turning in a young Vietnamese suspected of stealing guns or Lucki’s guilt that she should have been able to convince her male colleagues and avoid the unnecessary deaths. It is the unwarranted guilt that will not go away.
Recordings of the real women are played and each actor removes the disc around the neck to step out of character and reveal the frightening statistics and impact on the women who served in the lost war. Each actor leaves the stage, leaving the nurse who witnessed the horrific impact of the war in the dead bodies, the shrapnel wounds and the broken spirits. “No war is worth it” Nicholls-Gidley says as the lights fade.
I leave the theatre deeply moved by the women’s experience and angry at the treatment they received, proud of the difference they made and the courage and humanity they showed. This story of the American women is the story of all women at home, in war and in life. They are the victims of a man’s world and I leave with the hope that we are living through a time of change. In Their Footsteps is more than a beautifully crafted and performed piece of Verbatim theatre. It is also a timely reminder during a troubled time that hope is eternal and change will and must come.