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Watching Todd Allen Durkin wend his way through a character as hefty and complex as his latest host body — a shell-shocked World War II veteran marooned in St. Louis in the Caldwell's Six Years — is nothing short of a gift. In his Caldwell debut, Durkin is jittery and volcanic, as booming as a thunderbolt and as fragile as a Fabergé egg. Whether drifting in a zombie stupor or pacing the stage like a shark, the transformations he undergoes are striking and unpredictable. He's certainly the best thing about this play, which is an affecting if overambitious portrait of a two people across a 30-year swath of American history.
Written by Sharr White, Six Years gets its title from its dramatic conceit: Each of the play's five scenes are set six years apart, beginning in the postwar haze of 1949 and ending in the postwar malaise of 1973. All the while, we follow the same two characters, Phil and Meredith (Durkin and Margery Lowe), as their cyclical marriage ebbs and flows with the country's rapidly changing tides.
Six Years is an unflinching, quintessentially American story, because it puts a harsh spotlight on the things we Americans do best: divorce, infidelity, war, death, destruction, suburban development, and fast food. Love is somewhere in there too, though the play spends much more time on the former preoccupations. Phil and Meredith are rarely restive and never amorous; they're clinging to a marriage on the brink of perpetual collapse. In every scene, one or more characters trails off midsentence, stricken and numbed by aphasia — an overdone but refreshing representation of a pair of unremarkable Everypeople flummoxed by events beyond their control.
This is a bleak story, one among many bleak narratives about this particular era of American history. So its illuminations are not as profound as they aim to be. To its credit, the characters never become props for dry historical travelogues or pedantic lessons in the generational Zeitgeist scored by "The Times They Are a' Changin'." The Caldwell does dust off its video projection screen, which has been unused for the past couple of shows, to present montages of the social, political, and cultural news items of each intervening six-year period. But that's about it. The rest of the references — to the two wars, the election of JFK, the suburban sprawl, and so forth — are woven realistically into the marriage story, which is always front and center.
Margery Lowe shares most of the stage time with the electric Durkin, and she does a good job in a far less dramatic role. Her only problem is one of elocution. Many of her key lines are muffled, as if spoken through shoddy cell-phone reception, resulting in much justifiable murmuring from the opening-night audience.
The supporting cast runs the gamut from the thankless — Michael Focas, as Phil and Meredith's son, has all of one word of dialogue in two eyeblink-length scenes toward the end — to the underused: Gregg Weiner capably plays the minor and unassuming role of Meredith's brother Jack, which is equivalent to casting Laurence Olivier as a Stormtrooper. As Meredith's friend Tom, David Perez-Ribada has the most emotionally rich secondary part; his every action is deeply felt. And Betsy Graver sparkles with Jackie-O elegance in her too-brief role as the sounding board for Phil's midplay implosion.
This scene, which takes place in a swanky lounge during one of Phil's business trips, is Durkin's — and the play's — best moment. We've already seen the PTSD-suffering Phil fly off the handle over a jazz record, and later we'll see him flip his lid over a necktie. But in this scene, his initial euphoria over Kennedy's Camelot degenerates into an emotionally draining war flashback so detailed and convincing that you can imagine Durkin emerging from a foxhole in bloodied fatigues. It's this moment, not the note of obvious, on-the-nose irony that ends the play, that leaves the most lasting resonance.