J.A. Moad II’s Outside Paducah tells the stories of lives impacted by war via a tryptic of one-act plays—a family forced to move away from home to care for a wounded soldier, a father picking up the pieces of his life after his veteran son commits suicide, and two comrades confronting their demons in a world that has left them behind. One actor plays all three primary roles in the work, as if a common thread that binds together the complex fabric of the performance. Moad’s play stands apart from other war stories because he does not dwell in the familiar territory of the individual costs of war on vets, but how their pain radiates out, touching everyone that they love. The first two one-acts present stories through the eyes of a son, then a father of a soldier, in which Moad brings the unseen struggles of military families into the foreground. He offers us an unvarnished glimpse of places and people hit hardest by a war that seems to recede into the background of the American imagination with each passing year. By pushing the audience to know and emotionally connect with these marginalized voices, Moad challenges the pristine and often saccharine narratives that dominate our discourse on veterans and their families. In this way, he compels us to identify with these liminal voices so that we too may understand the deep consequences of America’s longest war.
The power of the play relies on the strength of these overlooked voices. Rarely do we see stories of children coping with modern war, the tribulations of caregiving, and the resilience of families that must carry on after suicide. Moreover, we don’t often hear the ugly aftermath of military service and the moral damage that veterans endure, as depicted in “Quittin’ Meth” — the voice-driven short story on which Moad based his third act, and the overall inspiration for Outside Paducah. The rich vernacular delivery of the characters’ lines humanize a Middle America that is so often portrayed through harmful tropes. Moad’s portrayal of these voices challenges commonly held narratives that veterans are the unsullied heroes that marketing agencies and propaganda would have us believe, or that the disadvantaged somehow bring their hardship upon themselves.
The work fittingly takes place in one of the many neglected corners of the country, which like the war, is relegated to the margins of our national consciousness. The economically depressed “flyover country” as the setting for these stories highlights the bitter truth that our country relies on people from the ignored segments of our society to fight our wars and work in our mills, only to leave them behind altogether once they’ve outlived their usefulness. Given an increasingly divisive political climate, Outside Paducah is a refreshing glimpse into the everyday trials of communities that we take for granted.
That Moad’s play does not consign military families to supporting roles and dispenses with tired clichés about the nobility of wounded veterans is just as refreshing. The struggles of Moad’s civilian characters in the one-acts “Our Ghost” and “Cairo” will likely never be memorialized in the way veterans have been, but by shining a light on these families, Moad shows us that we cannot ignore the war simply because the fighting occurs overseas—there is a war at home as well. It’s through these civilian characters that the audience can begin to identify with the amount of suffering this war has caused because we’ve all dealt with illness and death in our own families. The difference is that military families have been caught in a legacy of violence that often spans generations.
Moad establishes such a legacy in “Our Ghost,” in which the young son of a wounded veteran speculates that the moaning he hears at night is not his father, but the ghost of a long dead ancestor, Lt. Joseph James. The superimposition of the ghost over the veteran father symbolizes not only the marginalization of the wounded veteran—caught in a state of being heard, but not seen—but also the legacy of violence that haunts our country, from unresolved racial trauma after the Civil War to the seemingly unremitting conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria. What’s more, in the production notes, all of the elements of the set remain on stage, reinforcing the symbolic endurance of this legacy of violence. These thematic elements can be at time overly discrete, or too on the nose, but thankfully the strength of the young boy’s written voice compensates, no mean feat in and of itself.
In the second act, “Cairo,” we see the inchoate legacy of the Civil War in the racial inequalities that still divide the country. While well intentioned, Moad’s use of one of Cairo’s supporting characters—a woman of color named Bell with whom the protagonist has a relationship—doesn’t quite peel back the curtain on the deep injustices faced by people of color in America. Though the protagonist mentions racism, he makes only make one passing mention of Bell’s experience of it. If anything, this may have been a missed opportunity to explore the similarities between racism against the enemy, and racism at home when contrasted against the protagonist’s son’s experience in Iraq. Nonetheless, Moad presents each act as part of the complex tapestry of the intersecting issues of violence, poverty, and resilience.
Finally, in “Quittin’ Meth,” we follow a veteran who returns to his hometown, where he encounters a childhood friend who had also served. In this act the audience sees the awful trajectory that the legacy of violence in the first act put into motion, a child, a father, and finally the man, the soldier. Though these stories are distinct, the three primary characters of the play could easily be relatives, all bearing the weight of the war. In this final chapter, Moad confronts us with a veteran of the War on Terror, unseen before this act. What is striking about the act is not just the brutal, almost confessional, honesty of the text, but the dark turn it takes, which few authors of war literature have made during the War on Terror. The conversation between the two former comrades can be at times as wrenching as the closing chapter of Roy Scranton’s War Porn — which contains a brutal assault on a civilian. This section is a flurry of memories, emotions, and images that can be hard to track at times, given feverish energy of the language. “Quittin’ Meth” follows its namesake short story closely, moving back and forth in time and space—from the bar, to Baghdad, to childhood at a manic pace. One significant omission from the short story is the backstory of the veteran’s father, which contextualizes the way he experiences violence at war and at home, yet despite the lack of this rich detail, the final lines of the play are no less evocative and impactful as the original story.
Being honest about the ugly places war takes its warriors after coming home is necessary if our society is to support them on their return. While it is important to be honest about the depravity that often stems from trauma or deprivation, compassion is important in equal measures. Moad achieves this by driving straight at the heart of his character’s yearning—at once homesick, anarchic, and lyrical.