Reminiscing about old high school days can bring back bad feelings and experiences. But for characters Frankie, Shamus, Patrick and Danny, high school memories revolve around finding a group of friends and a place to belong in the midst of a war.
Performed at Northminster Presbyterian Church (2512 Central Park Ave., Evanston, Illinois), “The Institute, Coming of Age during the Vietnam War” is a play based on the real-life experiences of playwright, director and actor John Frank. The story opens up at a 45th high school reunion at The Institute, a Jesuit military high school, where four women spend time discussing their current lives. Suddenly, their husbands barge onto the scene, drinking and singing old songs from their youth.
The husbands and wives begin to share pleasant yet painful stories from their lives at The Institute. Their memories include cleaning the school bathrooms with toothbrushes as a punishment, dealing with unrelenting Latin and history teachers and gaining the courage to ask that one special girl to the school dance. As the couples reminisce, they transform into the younger versions of themselves at the school during the time of the Vietnam War.
From then on, the play takes place in the late 1960s, a time of political unrest, social injustice, riots and war. “The Institute” takes the audience back to this time period to show how the four men grew closer together, regardless of their differing backgrounds and beliefs. With weighty issues of persecution, sexual harassment, death and political disagreement on the students’ shoulders, The Institute gives them a place to be themselves, find support and discover who they want to be.
The play is a little dry and mundane at first, but as the characters’ relationships develop, the story becomes more excitingly realistic. Full of comedic relief, creative role changes and shocking plot twists, “The Institute” gives you an inside look at the experiences of military students during the Vietnam War. It emotionally connects viewers to the characters as they develop friendships and embody the Jesuit value of being a person for others.
Following the play, the director and actors facilitated a conversation with American veterans from the Chicago area, a practice they engage at all shows. The veterans shared their thoughts and reflections on the play, and they told their own personal stories of sacrifice and pain. Many talked about facing survivor’s guilt, wondering why it was that they survived when their friends did not. Others talked about the immense pride they had for their country and their disappointment in the lack of respect and discipline in today’s American society. This vulnerable conversation filled with laughter and tears made for an insightful culmination of the play.
Tickets to “The Institute, Coming of Age during the Vietnam War” can be bought at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2559601 with shows every Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday matinees from Oct. 21-Nov. 13.