Thirty years ago, with the sound of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" in the air, American troops left their stations in Vietnam, leaving behind a war-ravaged nation, painful memories for those who fought there and countless broken hearts.
In her new play, "Return to Vietnam," McLean resident Rachel Bail looks into the lives and hearts of an American Army pilot, the lover he left in Saigon and the daughter he never knew he had.
"The war was quite a traumatic time in this country," Bail said, who was raising her children during the war. "The war sparked my interest in Vietnam, as it did for many people. I went there four years ago," partly in order to research her play, she said.
In writing her play, Bail said she didn't want to portray the Vietnamese woman, My Thai, played by Iliana Inocencio, as "a victim like in Madam Butterfly or Miss Saigon. In 'Madam Butterfly,' the woman gives up her child and commits suicide. In 'Miss Saigon,' the woman gives up her child. I thought it was unfair to portray my character that way, the Asian woman as a compliant victim."
"Return to Vietnam" is the story of a pilot, played by Sam Simon of
McLean, who returns to Saigon 25 years after the war as a banker from New York City, hoping to expand his company into Vietnam. "He wants to get permission from the Vietnamese government, which is communist, of course, and it just so happens that the person he needs to talk to, is his former lover," she said.
The couple had been deeply in love during the war, the American pledging to take his love back to the United States with him after the war, but they were separated during the fall of Saigon, Bail said. "She was going to tell him she was pregnant on the helicopter out of Saigon but they were separated," she said. "He never knew he had a child with her."
WHEN HE RETURNS to American after the war, "the pilot goes a little crazy," she said. "But that's something that happened to a lot of veterans who returned home, we still have vets roaming on the streets of Washington, mumbling to themselves. A lot of the people who were drafted and fought were criticized because they went [to Vietnam], even though they didn't want to go."
The story is more emotional than political, she said. "I'd say it's a love story but it isn't at the same time. It's hard to say what a drama really is sometimes," Bail said. "It's not a tragedy... it's an exploration of attitudes of how Americans feel toward the Vietnamese as much as how the Vietnamese feel about Americans."
After reuniting with the woman he left behind and learning of his daughter, he meets her, a young woman whose strong anti-American sentiments create more conflict for the man, Bail said.
In the role of Ron O'Neil, the pilot, Sam Simon said his character is
"complex... the audience will try to figure out the different strains of
emotional that will exist within the characters," he said. "Some will be transparent, how he's feeling, but his relationships with the women are very complex."
Simon was an Army JAG pilot during Vietnam but did not log any flight time during combat, he said, and the division in the country between those who were drafted and served, and those who fled to Canada, helps him bring perspective to his character.
"My best friend went to Canada, he still lives there," he said. "That war created difficult choices for people. I remember going through it. It defined, for many of us, what we with the rest of our lives."
The similarities between "Return" and "Miss Saigon" are there but limited, Simon said. "It's a challenging storyline. A lot of the things she wrote about are really true, the loss and return of relationships is something a lot of people can relate to."
Iliana Inocencio plays My Thai, the Vietnamese woman who is left behind in Saigon to raise her baby without the man she loves.
"After he left her, she becomes very successful as an employee of the government," Inocencio said. "She's also very cold hearted. She didn't know that he was looking for her the whole time and she's become very rigid."
Playing the role of My Thai from the age of 19 to 50 is a challenge for Inocencio, currently a student in college who usually acts in musicals.
"She's the opposite of me. I'm a lot younger than my character in the second act, but I hope to bring as much as I can to the character."
BEING SO YOUNG, the director, Michael Stepowany, often has to remind her to more rigid, less emotional. "A life without love could surely turn a person hard," she said.
May Respicio plays Tuyet, the daughter of the American pilot and the Vietnamese woman.
"I'm their daughter and an university teacher and as one, she feels very strongly about the war and American soldiers and what they did to her country," Respicio said. "Part of the reason she feels so strongly is that, as she's grown up, she learned about her mother's relationship with the soldiers, but never who her father is," she said.
Her character is very passionate and opinionated. "She stands her ground and seems to be a strong character. She doesn't hesitate in letting her mother know how she feels about her father."
Director Michael Stepowany said once he read the script, which was given to him through the Tsunami Theater company, he had only seven weeks to get the play together.
"I remember the era very clearly," Stepowany said. He decided to mix some traditional Vietnamese sounds and dancers into the play to create a more "stylized" feel, and the scenes set in the United States are more "modern" looking.
"This play does have an anti-war message, but we're talking strictly about Vietnam," he said. "It only comes through in the dialogue. The play is left in the air at the end for the audience to decide how the characters' lives turn out. We spend a lot of energy getting into the relationships between the characters."
Stepowany said he has researched the war in order to make references to locations the pilot would have flown over and around to enhance the atmosphere of the play. "We're trying to keep it as historically accurate as possible, without using a specific platoon for him. It should be a visually interesting piece to watch."
In order to make the play as authentic feeling as possible, Stepowany will have "White Christmas" playing as the audience files into their seats before the play begins.
"'White Christmas' was the secret code to tell the soldiers it was time to evacuate Saigon," he said. "By the next day, all the soldiers were en route home."