The Boys of Winter

FLEM: I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry for comin with you. I’m sorry for thinkin it would be like before. I’m sorry you hate me for bein here…

BONNEY: I hate you for bein a fuckin fool! I hate you for thinkin there’d be glory in this fuckin toilet!

FLEM: I wanted to be like you!

BONNEY: I’m not that fourteen-year-old kid anymore!

FLEM: Neither am I!

BONNEY: I fuckin want you to be! Don’t you see that?! You’re what I’m fuckin fightin for! Prayin there’s some innocence left in this fuckin world! But now here you are, you’re just like me! No feelins left, for him, for the war, for this fuckin country! Nothin to fuckin fight for anymore! There’s nothin goddamn left!

FLEM: There’s always hope.

BONNEY: You know what this war’s done to hope?! Look around you, man! You think I got hope?! You think I got fuckin hope?!

The Boys of Winter, staring Craig Wallace and Drew Ebersole.

Craig Wallace and Drew Ebersole in “The Boys of Winter.” (Penn State production)

The Penn State cast, Top Row: Roger Bright, Joe Seefeldt, Richard McGoniagle, Willam F. Mulvey, Gregory Baldi; Bottom Row: Craig-Stephen Wallace, Drew Ebersole, Dick Chai, Steven Sennett, Cap Pryor

Hirschfeld’s drawing of the Broadway production

The Story

In December, 1968, a group of American soldiers in Viet Nam are dropped in the jungle on a secret mission. What happens over the next few days changes lives – and leads to a court-martial examining a civilian massacre involving the lieutenant leading the original mission.

The Backstory

Of all my plays, Boys Of Winter is closest to my heart. I was commissioned by L.A. Producer Bernie Safronsky to write a Vietnam play inspired by the events of the My Lai massacre. I did a prodigious amount of research, and never have I had a play dictate itself in the way this play screamed its story to me. The characters, all of them, shouted from the grave to be heard, and I like to think I listened.

The structure of the play is loosely based on R.C.Sherriff’s brilliant Journey’s End – a war-ravaged, disillusioned lieutenant finds that his childhood best friend has volunteered himself into the lieutenant’s platoon. Bernie and his partners were instantly enthusiastic, and decided to take it directly to New York. This was the first mistake – and the second was the hiring, without my initial consent, of director Herb Ross, a man who seemed passionate about the piece, but who was precisely the wrong director for it. Herb bullied the cast – which included Andrew McCarthy, Matt Dillon, Wesley Snipes, and Ving Rhames. His understanding of comic timing worked fine for the first two-thirds of the play, which is quite funny, but he hit a wall when the play turned serious. He chose the wrong theatre – a Broadway house, not a smaller, more intimate off-Broadway one – and had a designer create a huge and ungainly set (which incidentally got a Tony nomination – it looked phenomenal, but was hell to work on.) Never in rehearsal did we work on the play, and it was not until the disastrous first preview and Herb’s firing that I was able to do some much-needed re-writing on the last third of the play. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who directed Agnes, was brought in, but he was limited by the space, the set, the amount of time remaining, and the bad word-of-mouth that was spreading. By the time we opened, the play was in considerably better shape than what we started previews with, but we needed some out-of-town time to smooth out the final climactic scene, and a much different space to bring it home. The whole experience was painful for all.

The play has such a dark ending that – once it
is over – it leaves the audience in no mood
for applause.

A few years later I got an opportunity to direct a production of the play at Penn State. This time it all worked beautifully: the space was small, the set gorgeous and workable, and I was able to finish the play and see my vision realized. The cast was extraordinary – all of them students, but as fine as the Broadway cast, and much happier.

The play has such a dark ending that – once it is over – leaves the audience in no mood for applause. I worried about this for years, until I saw a production of Journey’s End at the Shaw Festival in Canada. The audience there was also left exhausted, breathless, hands in lap – preferring silence to approval.