Coming home again: Actors and directors reunite for Vietnam vet play ‘Pvt. Wars’

Sean O'Shea plays Gately and Sean Jackson is Silvio in the Center Stage Theater production "Pvt. Wars." Courtesy photo
Sean O’Shea plays Gately and Sean Jackson is Silvio in the Center Stage Theater production “Pvt. Wars.”
Courtesy photo

Not everybody in theater gets a second chance, either with a role or a production. But for the three actors and one director behind “Pvt. Wars,” which comes to Center Stage Theater tonight, they get an opportunity to return to a show from years ago.

These three actors, Sean O’Shea, George Coe, and Sean Jackson, along with Bill Egan, their director, mounted James McLure’s play two years ago at Plaza Playhouse in Carpinteria. Mr. McLure’s play, which started as a one-act in 1979 then got rewritten as a two-act years later, features three Vietnam vets in a VA hospital, all dealing with PTSD. But it’s also funny, a character study of the ways humans cope with trauma, try to make connections, and concoct strategies to get through the day. It’s an anti-war play that doesn’t mention the war, but just honestly looks at the people left in its aftermath.

Sean O’Shea plays Gately, the Georgia boy who spends a lot of the play fixing an old radio whose parts keep disappearing. Natwick, who comes from a rich Long Island family, is played by George Coe, and although he looks down on his fellow patients at the hospital at first, he wants to connect. And Sean Jackson plays Silvio, the macho Italian-American who tries to hide his insecurities. The key is in the title: these three men are all fighting private wars and don’t want to let anybody in. Mr. McLure spends the play peeling away these layers of defensiveness.

The four loved working together, but felt that somehow along the way the production was compromised, pushing the comedy too much, which caused the actors to lurch into the dramatic parts.

“There were a lot of limiting factors put on us,” says Mr. O’Shea. “I felt like there was a lot more we could do ourselves . . . I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut, and I felt that if I produced it, then I could open my mouth freely.”

“Once we’ve had a time to reflect on it, now we can build off the things we had developed for the character and take it to a new place,” says Mr. Coe, who many years ago also had performed the one-act version under Rick Mokler for an SBCC student production.

“We’ve dug deeper into the psychological stuff that these characters went through,” says Mr. Egan. “We also thought the show deserved a bigger audience.”

By luck, they have grabbed a three-week run at Center Stage, hopefully to make up for the Plaza’s poor audience numbers.

That sticks in Mr. O’Shea’s craw more than anything. Every production he has put on has made money, he says, and he is using “Pvt. Wars” to premiere his company, So Called Productions. His last volley into the theater world, the Santa Barbara Shakespeare Festival, was a success by his standards, and folded before it became a financial problem among board governance changes. When he shut it down he knew he would return, taking the lessons he learned (mostly, “you can’t do everything yourself”).

“I don’t believe there’s enough theater going on in Santa Barbara,” he says. “There’s a lot of discoordinated productions going on, and if there was more cohesion and communication I think that we can help professional Santa Barbara theater and make it grow up.”

This year is the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and the play offers a special military discount for the performances, along with a special performance on September 1 that will feature a 30 minute post-show talkback.

Sean O’Shea is excited about what this new company and this new undertaking means for his vision of Santa Barbara Theater. And he comes with a mix of confidence and optimism.

“The thing that keeps me going is that I’m too naive to know it can’t be done ,” he says.

“Pvt. Wars”
When: 8 p.m. today and Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.,
8 p.m. Wed. and Thurs. Through Sept. 5
Where: Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo
Cost: $25-$30; $20 students, veterans and active military; ($12.50 veterans and active military Sept. 1 show only)
Information: (805) 963-0408,

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