Tim Robbins directs a timely Actors’ Gang revival of Dalton Trumbo’s ‘Johnny Got His Gun’

By Bliss Bowen

A scene from ‘Johnny Got His Gun’
Photo by Ashely Randall

If you listen closely, past careful government doublespeak and the daily cascade of “unprecedented” political tumult, you can hear them: drumbeats. A low rumble still, but they’re pounded out behind statements officials parcel out regarding shifted budget priorities, military exercises and rescinded agreements, and in news reports of potential troop privatization. They’re part of the reason Actors’ Gang artistic director Tim Robbins chose to stage Bradley Rand Smith’s adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun,” which opened the company’s 2018-19 season in October and runs through Nov. 10.

The company was already workshopping Jean Giraudoux’s anti-authoritarian “The Madwoman of Chaillot” when Robbins decided to direct Trumbo’s anti-war classic instead. (“Madwoman” is being rescheduled later in the season.) He says it just made more sense.

“I feel it’s the right thing to be doing, particularly at this moment in our history,” explains the Oscar-winning actor, who co-founded The Actors’ Gang in 1981. “They’re starting to float the propaganda… propaganda for an aggressive intervention or invasion of a sovereign country; you fill in the blank what it is or what it will be, but all indications at this point seem to be Iran.” Kitchen utensils clatter in the background as he makes breakfast while discoursing knowledgeably, albeit wearily, about the epic failure of elected representatives and corporate media to present obstacles to war, and the expanding refugee crisis that was seeded by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Dalton’s controversial 1939 novel, which won a National Book Award for Most Original Book, was similarly disenchanted with the political cynicism and profiteering surrounding war. Set in the aftermath of World War I, “Johnny Got His Gun” takes place in the mind of a soldier, a literal average Joe from Colorado named Joe Bonham, who has lost his limbs and face along with his ability to hear, see or speak; he communicates by banging out Morse code with his head.

Dalton, one of the legendary blacklisted Hollywood Ten, penned screenplays for films like “Roman Holiday” (for which he posthumously received an Oscar) and “Lonely Are the Brave,” which were renowned for their intelligence and wit. But his prose for “Johnny Got His Gun” emulates Bonham’s stream of consciousness with minimal punctuation.

“If he could only think of real things he would destroy this dream of having no legs. … [But] it was the truth. That was why his head had seemed lower than his legs. Because he had no legs. Naturally they seemed light. Air is light too. Even a toenail is heavy compared to air.

Dalton scripted and directed a 1971 film adaptation of “Johnny Got His Gun” starring Timothy Bottoms; unfortunately, its intentions are worthier than the film itself (which is easily found on YouTube). But the book has regained cultural currency in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as waves of overextended military personnel have returned home with amputated limbs, severe PTSD, and ruptured faith in politics and religion. Certain passages still jolt, such as this one that Robbins says is incorporated into Bradley Rand Smith’s adaptation.

“Somebody said let’s go out and fight for liberty and so they went and got killed without ever once thinking about liberty. And what kind of liberty were they fighting for anyway? How much liberty and whose idea of liberty? … They were always fighting for something the bastards and if anyone dared say the hell with fighting it’s all the same each war is like the other and nobody gets any good out of it why they hollered coward. If they weren’t fighting for liberty they were fighting for independence or democracy or freedom or decency or honor or their native land or something else that didn’t mean anything. The war was to make the world safe for democracy for the little countries for everybody. If the war was over now then the world must be all safe for democracy. Was it? And what kind of democracy? And how much? And whose?”

“When most people hear about ‘Johnny Got His Gun,’” Robbins says, “they think about what the result of the war was for Joe Bonham. In other words, they think of the injured soldier. But what makes the book so beautiful for me is this betrayal of the young man that’s alive and passionate and in love and full of humor and life. That’s where the piece lives — in its vitality.”

Celebrating that humanity is key to The Actors’ Gang production. Nathan Woodworth stars as Joe Bonham, in a cast that also features Pierre Adeli, Mela Green, Scott Harris, Kaili Hollister, Mary Eileen O’Donnell, Luis Quintant, Tess Vidal and Andrea Monte Warren. Robbins acknowledges that telling the story through the character of Joe Bonham “seems impossible, conceptually” — but that’s part of its attraction.

“The adaptation that Bradley wrote is a one-man show that Jeff Daniels did Off-Broadway
in ’82,” he says. “When I read it, I read a choral piece. So in that the play is set inside Joe’s mind, it can be many voices. It can be the voice of the mother, it can be the voice of the one he loves, it can be the voice of his father, it can be the voice of authority. It can be the voice of passion, of fear, of propaganda. It can be the voice of liberation. …

“The actors, the technicians,
the stage management and crew, we’re all just so in love with the words that we have been blessed to say. It’s something relevant to now, but it’s also about all of our desires and our disappointments and our ability to overcome obstacles and live and love and embrace life. That’s what’s at the core of this story.”

Smith, says Robbins, “really captured the poetry” in Trumbo’s exquisite writing, and channels Trumbo’s insight into “the intricacies of human nature.” The beauty and occasional humor of that language balances the terror of Joe Bonham’s situation, explains Robbins:

“There are thousands of people that are hidden away, that are forgotten, that because of medical science survived a horrendous injury but live in a forced anonymity. As Joe Bonham says, ‘Next time they start talking or debating about war, why don’t you bring me in a traveling exhibit in front of the deliberative bodies that are talking about war and say: ‘This is what we are talking about. Do you approve this, do you vote this?’ Show me to people, because I am the result of war.’ It’s no accident that we don’t see these people. It’s no accident that we didn’t see coffins returning home from this war as we did in Vietnam. Imagery is super important, and they know it. And they do not want you looking at Joe Bonham if they’re trying to convince you to support their war.

“So that’s why we’re putting him up on stage,” he continues. “It’s kind of our job to fill in the gap when government and media fail. It’s like we do with our educational programs and our prison project. It’s the same thing; we’re there to speak and serve a community that is forgotten, or is ignored.”

“Johnny Got His Gun” plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday through Nov. 10 at The Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; a Sunday matinee happens at 2 p.m. on Nov. 4. Tickets are $25 to $34.99. Call (310) 838-4264 or visit theactorsgang.com.