Scenes from “Thanks of a Grateful Nation.” Photos courtesy of Showtime
Uncovering Gulf War Syndrome
Showtime’s ‘Thanks of a Grateful Nation’ explores the malady plaguing so many vets and the government’s coverup
By Ivor Davis
If you can, keep 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, free. The occasion: the Showtime miniseries “Thanks of a Grateful Nation” (the ironic title is taken from congressional hearings), a dramatization of real events based on real people.
It is a doleful tale, indeed. Chris Small, played by Matt Keeslar (“Sour Grapes”), has much to look forward to as he returns home to his wife, Teri (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He loves Teri, his country and his career in the military. But something is drastically wrong: Chris, a strong, healthy young man when he went away, is getting increasingly sick. Then, Teri and their new baby start sharing his symptoms. While Teri seeks answers, her campaign alienates other military wives and eventually even her husband.
Meanwhile, in the Texas heartland, Jeran Gallimore (Steven Webber) comes home from a postwar desert cleanup assignment to find himself diagnosed with multiple brain tumors that his doctors have never before seen. His devoted sister, Jerilinn Folz (Marg Helgenberger), and his mother care for him as best they can after he’s turfed out of a VA hospital because his insurance runs out.
In Washington, ex-Secret Service agent Jim Tuite (Ted Danson), working in the office of Sen. Donald Riegle (Brian Dennehy), discovers that despite the government’s denials, there is a Gulf War Syndrome, and it’s killing and maiming American servicemen and their families.
Once upon a time, this David and Goliath tale would have been a big-screen epic, starring Meryl Streep or Michael Douglas. But in this blockbuster cinematic era, it has been left to cable TV to tell this true story, effectively intercutting the action with interviews with the real-life survivors. And it is to Showtime’s credit that this is not one of those once-over-lightly, facile TV quickies.
Says Executive Producer Tracey Alexander, who, after reading a magazine story about the sexual transmission of Gulf War Syndrome, conducted four years of research before going into production: “We interviewed about 200 people. We read every congressional and senatorial hearing from over a five-year period.”
The reasons for the coverup become gradually clearer to an increasingly bitter Tuite. “From 1985 to 1989, American companies approved by the U.S. government supplied chemical-warfare agents to Iraq — bubonic plague, botulism, anthrax and an assortment of other deadly gasses and poisons,” he declares. “Our men sickened and died from weapons wielded by the enemy but supplied by their own country.”
Oh so gradually, the military began to admit the possibility that some of their troops were suffering from new and terrifying diseases. First, it was 100 to 300, then it was 1,000, then 10,000. Today, estimates of the number of Gulf War Syndrome victims is 10,000, and the VA and the Department of Defense, who refused to acknowledge the truth, have been removed from any role in the future investigation of Gulf War Syndrome.
And, happily, not everyone failed the vets. Brian Dennehy was left with an abiding admiration for one man in government who put his reputation on the line to uncover the truth.
“I have tremendous respect for Sen. Riegle,” he says, “and it’s unfortunate he is no longer in politics. It’s rare and unusual for a politician to take a stand the way he did, the way he put himself in a potentially damaging position. Clearly, Riegle cared enough about the vets and his country to do something about it. He’s a true patriot.”
Ventura writer Ivor Davis writes a weekly column for The New York Times Syndicate.
“It’s the most difficult experience I’ve ever had in the theater,” says Edith Fields of “Request Concert.”
A Vow of Silence
In ‘Request Concert,’ Edith Fields conveys a world of isolation and despair without uttering a syllable
By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor
In Franz Xaver Kroetz’s play “Request Concert,” a middle-aged woman returns home from work and bustles around her tidy efficiency apartment.
Miss Rasch prepares a candlelit dinner for one. She clips coupons, reads a romance novel, meticulously wipes her spotless stove. She undresses, prepares for bed — and reaches a jolting realization.
Miss Rasch has plenty of time for her little routines because she is utterly alone.
Actress Edith Fields, too, is alone throughout Kroetz’s powerful play (now at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks). For 90 minutes, she conveys the protagonist’s isolation and despair, without uttering a syllable.
“It’s the most difficult experience I’ve ever had in the theater,” says Fields, the recipient of seven DramaLogue awards, including one for a 1986 production of “Request Concert” at the Cast Theatre. “Words are the actor’s crutch, and without them, you must be completely in the moment. You must have a running internal life because the audience is watching you as if you are under a microscope. If you make one false move, they will know.”
When Fields was asked to replace Salome Jens in the 1986 production, she was, in a word, terrified. She had just one week to prepare for the role, so she practically slept on the set. After each mute performance, she was so dazed that her husband had to whisk her away from the theater. “I did not enjoy the experience at all,” she says.
A dozen years passed, and Fields matured as an actress. She earned praise fo
r her performances in plays such as “Death of a Salesman” and “Nuts.” She appeared on “Seinfeld” and “Murphy Brown” and in films such as “Dad” and “Mr. Saturday Night.” She forgot about “Request Concert” — until a young man approached her at a fund-raising dinner about a year ago. “I know who you are,” he said. “I saw you in ‘Request Concert,’ and I’ve never forgotten you.”
Fields took the hint. She decided it was time to reprise “Request Concert” in Los Angeles, this time as an actress and executive producer. She thought that the piece about urban loneliness would resonate here more than ever.
And so Fields wrote a passionate letter to Kroetz in Germany, requesting the rights to the play. She reunited with her former director, Michael Arabian, and began precisely preparing for the role.
Though Kroetz envisions Miss Rasch as a working-class German, Fields imagines her as a middle-class resident of North Hollywood, “a sprawling place without a sense of community,” she says. She memorized the script — around eight pages of stage directions — and invented the back story of Miss Rasch’s life. Like Kroetz, Fields sees the protagonist as a spinster who once had a painful love affair.
Before Fields ever rehearsed onstage, she practiced at home, where she virtually lived in Miss Rasch’s world. “I began to observe myself in lonely situations,” says the actress, who created a subliminal script for “Request Concert,” a monologue of Miss Rasch’s thoughts that runs in Fields’ head throughout every moment of the play.
Fields grew up in an upper-middle-class, Orthodox Jewish family in Poughkeepsie N.Y., where she performed Yiddish songs at Jewish events with her identical twin sister. The girls eventually signed a contract to work the Borscht Belt, but their parents nixed their career. Nice Jewish girls didn’t work in show business, they said.
So Fields married young, had babies, and did children’s theater as a hobby. It wasn’t until her children were teen-agers that she felt the void in her life. She hesitated, however, when her husband suggested that she take professional theater classes in Manhattan. “I was a frightened person, an identical twin with no sense of self,” Fields says. “I was a mother, a daughter, a wife, but I had no identity.”
If her husband hadn’t pressed her, Fields admits, she never would have had the guts to enroll at the renowned Herbert Berghof Studio. As it was, she paced the city in a driving rain before she could persuade herself to attend her first class.
Fields went on to study with William Hickey and Stella Adler, and, two years later, she landed her first role, off, off Broadway. Astoundingly, the suburban mom was able to nurture an acting career.
She had to start all over again in 1977, when her husband moved his surgery practice to Los Angeles. “It was devastating for me,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone, and I felt lost, alienated, alone.”
Fields draws upon all those feelings for “Request Concert,” which she hopes will reach out to all the lonely hearts of Los Angeles. “When I am onstage, I feel that I am letting people know they are not alone,” she says. “I want them to know there is a way out, that they don’t have to live that way. I also want to raise the consciousness of all the people who don’t have to live alone. They’ll never look the same way at a solitary person walking down the street.”
“Request Concert,” Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. $18. (213) 960-7754.
Alarums and Excursions
By Charles Marowitz
Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart
When Lorenz Hart died in 1943, Richard Rodgers transformed from a sharp, urban composer of sophisticated musical comedies into a formidable American monument. It was a little like the sleek and pleated lines of the New York Chrysler Building turning into the Eiffel Tower. Although Rodgers’ collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II produced some admirable early works such as “Oklahoma” and “Carousel,” the slide toward nauseous sentimentality had begun and would soon chuck up maudlin mementos such as “South Pacific,” “The Flower Drum Song” and “The Sound of Music.”
“The King and I,” the current revival at the Pantages, is a monument in blancmange commemorating cuteness. Cute little Siamese wives, and cute little Siamese children, and cute little Siamese settings that evoke all the tinselly glamour of an Oriental whorehouse. The story itself, based mainly on Anna Leonowen’s book “The English Governess at the Siamese Court,” could be perversely condensed as follows: An upper-middle-class English teacher, summoned to tutor the children of a Siamese emperor in Western language and customs, pollutes the rich traditions of an ancient culture with superficial notions of Christianity and democracy, subverting the King’s authority, destabilizing the state and, after humiliating him before his royal entourage and straining his weak heart with excessive dancing of the polka, ultimately brings about his death. It being a musical soap opera, it is implied, of course, that the King has secret hankerings for the British tutor, which, tacitly, are reciprocated.
The most curious aspect of the culture clash is that what most seems to get Anna’s goat is the fact that the ancient hierarchical customs impose a rigid caste system which demands slavish obsequiousness from all the King’s subjects. An odd objection in the late 19th century, when England itself was one of the most class-ridden societies in the world and the deference due to British royalty, although less flamboyant, was every bit as severe as that accorded the King of Siam.
In the role of the English governess (originally created by Gertrude Lawrence, who was much closer to the right age) is Marie Osmond, who has a limpid voice that is almost entirely devoid of character. Someone ought to inform the actress that only parodic Music Hall comedians pronounce the word “know” as “ni’yoh” and that, in England, “romance” doesn’t rhyme with “ponce” but with “pants.” Osmond wears her English accent as lightly as if it were the anchor of the Titanic. She looks like a piece of Dresden china and, unfortunately, acts like one as well.
As the Siamese potentate, Victor Talmadge
is tough, terse and authoritative, but constantly operating under the cloud of Yul Brynner’s definitive performance. A radically different approach, one that played up the King’s insecurities rather than his pomposity, might have reaped greater rewards. The rest of the cast is dramatically negligible and musically undernourished, the strongest and most delineated performance coming from Helen Yu as Lady Thiang, the King’s sympathetic stalwart at the palace. As in previous revivals, the Siamese version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” tastefully choreographed by Jerome Robbins, is the high point of the evening — a hard-edged little gem amid the soft-centered bonbons that surround it.
The show’s most durable virtue is, of course, the music. Numbers such as “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers” “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance” are unexpungable show tunes. The problem is that these are slotted into Hammerstein’s book according to the formulaic requirements of the Broadway stage: a lighthearted comedy number followed by a love song, followed by a large production number, leading to a reprise and a big finale. The building blocks of the musical are more apparent than the dry-walling, plaster and decoration intended to cover them. And throughout, we can feel our emotions being directed from one place to another, as if by a bumptious tour guide who refuses to allow his sightseers to have any sensations other than those prescribed by his itinerary.
The Rodgers and Hart collaborations were far more primitive, far less polished, cruder in every respect, but I’d sooner rollick through “Pal Joey,” “A Connecticut Yankee” or “The Boys From Syracuse” any day — just for the sheer pleasure of their buoyancy and spontaneity. Shows such as “The King and I” inhabit that portentous realm which is adjacent to operetta and a long bus ride away from song-and-dance shows. And although they are more stately and have more dignity than the genre from which they evolved, I mourn the absence of the boisterousness, frivolity and high spirits that informed many of their predecessors.
Marie Osmond as the English governess in “The King and I.”
Charles Marowitz, a regular contributor for In
Theater magazine, writes from Malibu
Sociologist Nathan Glazer
Irving Kristol (standing, far right) at the City College of New York, circa 1940, as seen in “Arguing the World.”
The new documentary ‘Arguing the World’ follows the lives of four prominent 20th-century intellectuals
By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor
In Alcove 1 of the City College of New York cafeteria in the late 1930s and early 1940s, four radical sons of Jewish immigrants munched brown-bag lunches, talked Marxism and passionately argued the world.
The scrappy young members of the anti-Stalinist left went on to become prominent New York intellectuals: literary critic Irving Howe, political journalist Irving Kristol, the sociologists Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell.
They would argue for the rest of their lives.
Joseph Dorman captures it all in his fascinating new documentary, “Arguing the World,” which depicts the four doing what they do best: talking.
The riveting movie, which weaves together gossipy, personal reminiscences, lively archival footage and photos, follows the familiar arc of 20th-century Jewish intellectuals. From the “cheder” of City College, the four men became writers and editors of publications such as Partisan Review, Dissent and Commentary. They shaped American social and cultural criticism with such books as Howe’s “Politics and the Novel” and Glazer’s “Beyond the Melting Pot.” Along the way, they moved from outsider to insider, from the political left to varying degrees of the middle and right.
Disgusted by Stalin, the intellectuals rejected Soviet communism and hardly spoke out when fellow leftists were purged during the McCarthy era. During the 1960s, they clashed with the New Left, all from different points of view.
When police bloodied heads at Columbia University, Bell, who had unsuccessfully negotiated with students, walked home and cried. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, then a student activist, dubbed Glazer and his UC Berkeley colleagues “control freaks” and armchair liberals. Howe, Dissent’s editor, whose ideology remained closest to the New Left, called student leader Tom Hayden a “commissar.”
In the end, Kristol became a Reaganite guru, influential in America’s resurgent conservative movement; Bell fought to defend a besieged liberalism; Glazer became a forceful critic of liberal social policy; and Howe, ever on the political margins, endured as a key voice of the radical left until his death in 1993.
It’s no wonder that none of the four men appear together in Dorman’s film. In fact, Howe says of Kristol: “The fact that we were together 50 years ago doesn’t stir the faintest feeling in me. I wish him well personally — a long life with many political failures.”
Though Kristol reciprocates the feeling, Dorman notices Howe’s classic Jewish social history, “World of Our Fathers,” on the conservative’s bookshelf.
The four men, after all, share more than a common Jewish history. Bell, revisiting his Lower East Side neighborhood, suggests that the Socialist Party headquarters were more important than the synagogue. And gravel-voiced, chain-smoking Kristol told New York magazine that “the difference between the kind of radicals we were and the kind of radicals one sees occasionally today is that we read books. We argued about Marx, but you had to sit down in that little book and read Marx. Including the unreadable stuff, like ‘Das Kapital.'”
“Arguing the World” opens on May 29 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills for a one-week run. For information, call (310) 274-6869.
Jerri Zbiral and cameraman Ned Miller interview Pavel Horesovsky, a child survivor. Pavel was 16 days old when he was taken from his mother.
In Memory’s Shadow
By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer
As a child of a concentration camp survivor, Jerri Zbiral grew up hearing about Lidice, her mother’s hometown. A small Czech village near Prague, it was wiped out in June 1942, in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, an SS officer who helped mastermind the Nazi genocide. Zbiral’s mother, Anna, her grandmother and her older half-sister survived, but none of the 192 men in the Catholic farming town did, and only nine of the town’s 91 children were spared. The rest were crammed inside trucks and gassed. The women were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where they remained until the war’s end. One hundred forty-three returned to Lidice, Zbiral’s mother and grandmother among them. But the peaceful village they remembered no longer existed: The houses and buildings had been obliterated, hills leveled and even the river rerouted. A new town called Lidice was eventually built nearby. Anna, widowed like the other women, was reunited with her daughter, Eva, one of the nine surviving children who had been raised by her sister-in-law in Germany. Anna remarried, and Jerri was born in Prague in November 1948.
When Zbiral was growing up in Ontario, Canada, the reminders of her mother’s nightmarish past were ever-present. Anna wouldn’t serve oatmeal, beets or turnips because those were foods she had eaten in Ravensbruck. Zbiral had to clean her plate because her mother never had enough to eat in the camps. When her daughter wore Dr. Scholl’s sandals as a teen, Anna told her they looked like the shoes she’d worn in captivity.
The continual barrage of memories made her life “hell on wheels,” Zbiral said during a phone interview from her home in Evanston, Ill. “I can’t blame my mother. I’m glad she survived….But those of us who grew up with these constant reminders were screwed up.”
It wasn’t until Zbiral was in her 40s and had two children of her own that she realized the effect her mother’s experiences had on her own life. By that point, she and her husband, Alan Teller, were deeply involved in turning her family’s story into a documentary. The 52-minute film, “In the Shadow of Memory,” produced by Teller, who is Jewish, and Zbiral, who is not, will have its world premiere this Wednesday, June 3, at the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles.
Jerri Zbiral with Bozena Vokata, a Lidice survivor.
Initially, when she and her husband began gathering material in the early ’80s, Zbiral intended to write a book about Lidice before her mother and other survivors were gone. She interviewed Anna on audiotape, visited Czechoslovakia several times, talking to survivors, visiting archives. The couple had a background in photography, and a friend, a Bulgarian-Israeli filmmaker called Jacky Comforty, convinced them to make a documentary instead. They raised the money (though they are still deeply in debt) through a non-profit foundation headed by Pierre Sauvage, the famed director of the film, “Weapons of the Spirit.”
Zbiral and Teller narrate “In the Shadow of Memory.” It includes archival footage of the destruction of Lidice, family videos, survivor interviews and scenes from the 50th anniversary memorial on June 10, 1992. Her mother, now 87, and living in Hamilton, Ontario, is heard talking about Ravensbruck, but doesn’t appear on camera.
For Teller, whose Russian-Polish grandparents emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the century, the story of Lidice and his wife’s family has become his Holocaust, Zbiral said. The couple are raising their children as Jews and belong to a Reform congregation, where their son Max, 14, had his bar mitzvah. Both Max and his sister Emma, 9 1/2, have seen the film, but Zbiral’s half-sister Eva, 61, hasn’t. “She’s buried the story,” Zbiral explains. “It’s her way of survival.” The final version of the film was completed just this month after much editing and re-editing. Making it was difficult, but an important healing experience, Zbiral says. “It was a very, very expensive therapy session.” If there’s a next film, she adds, “it’ll be a comedy.”
“In the Shadow of Memory” will show once only on Wednesday, June 3 at 7 p.m. at the Goethe Institute, 5750 Wilshire Blvd. Admission is free, and Zbiral will participate in a discussion following the film. The event is being presented in conjunction with the “Butterflies Don’t Live Here Anymore” exhibit of children’s drawings from Terezin, and is co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the Consul General of the Czech Republic. For more information, call (213) 761-8170.
Children’s Art, Children’s Voices
Ruth Gutmannova drew the brilliant sun in glorious red and gold. Margit Koretzova painted butterflies floating lazily in a golden mist above a flower garden. Paul Friedmann wrote a poem about the last butterfly: “So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow…It went away I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye.”
These children created the pictures and poems at Terezin, a “model camp” in Prague set up by the Nazis to fool foreign visitors about their “humane” treatment of the inmates. Of course, it was all a sham, and Ruth, Margit and Paul, like all but 100 of the 15,000 children who inhabited Terezin in the war years, were shipped east, mostly to Auschwitz, where they perished, along with most of their families. Most, like Ruth, Margit and Paul, died before or just after they had entered their teens.
The youngsters’ hopeful, imaginative spirit — and their sad foreboding — is currently on display in an exhibit of artwork and poetry at the Jewish Federation’s Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. On loan from the Jewish Museum of Prague and co-sponsored by the Consul General of the Czech Republic, the show, titled “Butterflies Don’t Live Here Anymore,” for Paul Friedmann’s poignant poem, will close on June 7 and is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays or by appointment.
“The 42 paintings and drawings are fine reproduct
ions, since the originals were too fragile to travel,” said Marcia Reines Josephy, the museum’s acting director and curator. The art and poems represent only a fraction of the more than 4,000 works that became the only living memorial to the children shipped off to oblivion.
According to the catalog (available for $10 at the exhibit), most of the drawings are by girls, ages 10 to 15. Their teacher, an outstanding artist named Friedl Dicker-Brandejs, gave them themes, but mostly left them to work independently, with gentle guidance. The children drew landscapes, animals, families, flowers and fantasies.
Since the museum remains without a permanent home, the pictures are hung in a downstairs meeting room at the Federation’s offices at 5700 Wilshire Blvd., Room 140. The glassed-in room, dubbed “Gallery 140,” is the best space the museum can offer at this point, since negotiations for its expected quarters on Museum Row fell through. Josephy admitted that, under the circumstances, the museum is feeling a bit homeless but is doing its best to accommodate the community with exhibits and outreach.
Also on view at the gallery is an assemblage piece by Ursula M. Kammer-Fox. Called “Starquality,” it consists of an antique optometrist’s case with empty eyeglass frames, a rusted Master lock, candles and, most unusual of all, a collectible set of Nazi-uniform cards published in England in 1933.
When Kammer-Fox, who is German but not Jewish, came across the cards in an antique shop, she worried that the dealer would think her a Nazi memorabilia collector because of her accent. But she purchased the cards anyway to take them out of circulation and to create something meaningful. The artwork is the result.
Each part of the piece has particular meaning, Kammer-Fox said. For instance, the Master lock is symbolic of the prisons created by the German “Master race,” and the optometrist case and empty glasses frames are a reminder of the glasses taken from Jews before they were sent to the gas chambers.
The artist, who now resides in Santa Monica, said that she named her creation “Starquality” “in tribute to the enduring power of the Star of David,” and decided to donate it to the Jewish Federation.
For more information on the exhibits, call (213) 761-8170.
Mira Zakai Photo by Christian Steiner
New Music for New Audiences
It’s the old story, sighs Neal Brostoff, a high priest of Jewish music in Los Angeles. Contemporary classical music (or new music, as it’s called by people in the know) can’t get any respect. It’s an art form that’s largely ignored, both in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, laments Brostoff, the Skirball Cultural Center’s resident music specialist.
Last year, the pianist-turned-impresario noted that no one had planned any local new-music events for Israel’s 50th anniversary. So he took matters into his own hands. He has orchestrated a May 29, 11 a.m. panel discussion at the Skirball, “New Music for New Audiences,” which will feature the best minds on two continents.
Participants such as Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed, conductor Steven Mosko and Israeli diva Mira Zakai will probe how multiculturalism affects the new-music biz. They’ll also explore the age-old question, If you plan the concert, will they come?
You’ll get to hear some of the music, at least by top Israeli composers, during a Skirball “New Music From Israel” program on June 2. The alto Zakai will sing pieces written for her by composers such as Russian émigré Mark Kopytman.
Zakai also will perform the 1967 piece “Collage For Mezzo Soprano, Flute, Percussion and Tape”; it’s by Tzvi Avni, one of the old guard of Israel’s avante-garde.
The evening will continue with a chamber piece by Israeli-born Shulamit Ran, the composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony and a 1991 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Moshe Zorman’s quirky “The Lost Tango,” Brostoff says, should show audiences that there is fun in new music.
The producer’s goal is simple. “With all the conflict throughout Israel and the Middle East,” he says, “it’s important for us, now and again, to appreciate how the arts can transcend those difficulties.”
What’s up next for Jewish music maven Brostoff? He’s been asked to sit on the planning committee for the world festival of sacred music called by the Dalai Lama. —Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor