Thomas Bird’s riveting one-man show asks hard questions about war, honor and paternal bonds

By Bliss Bowen

Thomas Bird lifts his hands to express a transformational moment in “Bearing Witness”
Photo by Barbara Katz

A trim, 71-year-old man in black tee, jeans and running shoes stands onstage. A bench and two empty chairs are positioned around him. Projected onto the rear wall is a sepia-toned montage of faces. There is no music. It is a stark setup, one that would not seem optimal for storytelling about war at its most vicious.

Yet in Thomas Bird’s one-man play “Bearing Witness,” currently in production at the Odyssey Theatre, that simplicity communicates war’s human costs more piercingly than film’s layered sensory enhancements. Bird recounts his military experiences in Vietnam and those of his father, an Army doctor who arrived at the Nazis’ infamous Mauthausen death camp in Austria the day after its 1945 liberation and for a month treated its skeletal survivors.

Much of “Bearing Witness” is framed by Bird’s three-day visit to Mauthausen, now a museum — a pilgrimage urged upon him in the 1980s by celebrated Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in a surprisingly lighthearted scene. Bird’s description of the camp’s modern-day silence makes its past horrors feel skin-crawlingly real. (According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “an estimated 197,464 prisoners passed through the Mauthausen camp system between August 1938 and May 1945. At least 95,000 died there.”)

“It’s eerily quiet,” Bird says of Mauthausen, speaking from his North Hollywood home. “Even large groups of 40 or 50 [tourists] were silent in the face of what’s in the air.”

His play revolves around the point-counterpoint between his father’s “good war” and the surreal “bad war” that left him a violent, PTSD-afflicted mess, unable to just “get on with life” as his father had done. The “code of silence” so vigilantly maintained by many WWII veterans enforces a distance only partially bridged when the son reveals what he did in southeast Asia, and when the father, a tough yet inspiring man of honor, confesses a crushing secret before his death.

A pivotal moment occurs when Bird adopts the terrified crouch of a young soldier on patrol near the Cambodian border, circa 1965 — shooting and then bayoneting a Vietnamese fighter, from whose blood-drenched pockets he claims a Buddha medal. Onstage, Bird lifts his eyes and arms skyward as he recalls a transforming experience that propelled him through a “membrane” and imbued him with the unshakable conviction that the dead man’s soul was watching over him.

“I feel that that young soldier’s soul is still with me,” he says somberly, “and it’s compelled me to work on another piece. I don’t know whether it’s going to be the sequel to this piece, or completely separate. But it’s a story about an ongoing spiritual journey to find a healing for that particular day, and to release whatever aspects of his soul and spirit that are still with me.”

Magnifying the brutality of that killing was an order by senior officers to use the soldier’s body as bait.

“It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” he says. “The exploitation of someone’s soul for the purpose of killing other people is just contrary to the laws of nature. The thing that kept driving me progressively insaner in those days was: what if the roles were reversed? That really traumatized me. What if the North Vietnamese exploited my Catholicism to kill American soldiers who might come to retrieve my remains? It just blew my mind that we were doing something so sinful, so irreligious, so un-American. … That was abominable behavior on our part.”

He can relive such incidents in performance now, he says, thanks to “extensive PTSD therapy” that helped him move forward. Telling stories such as his is “illuminating,” especially for younger audiences, and necessary — similar to how his infuriated father believed it essential that people see the savagery perpetrated during the Holocaust.

“He’d seen with his own eyes what had happened at Mauthausen. Eisenhower brought the world’s press and members of Congress in to see what was going on in the liberated camps, because he knew that over time there would be people who would deny what had happened,” Bird notes. “All those photographs and all that testimony are still in the public record. When people deny it … it is just so horribly mean and unhistoric and goes against the proof that it exists.”

“Bearing Witness,” which gestated for a decade, is the first time Bird’s resurrected his father onstage. But Vietnam’s been a recurring theme in his work since he founded the Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theatre Company (VETCo) in 1978 and produced more than two dozen plays Off- and Off-Off-Broadway, including the landmark “Tracers” (which started at the Odyssey). He portrayed a military advisor in Roland Joffe’s 1984 film “The Killing Fields,” and as co-producer won Ace, Emmy and Peabody Awards for the 1987 documentary “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam.” In the 1980s and ’90s he created two one-man shows, “Walking Point” and “Point of Origin,” and wrote the libretto for the opera “Tonkin.” He has revisited Vietnam several times, and mentors disabled Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans using art, music and theatre. (“I love doing it, and I do it mainly because it’s what helped me in the first place.”)

Bird is mindful that certain politicians are dismissing history’s lessons.

“We in the veterans’ community refer to the president as ‘Mr. Bone Spur,’ because he got five deferments for bone spurs,” he snorts. “The truth is that the America that was great was forged by the WWII generation; they’d gone through the Depression, and then they went off and fought a war on two fronts and defeated fascism and saved the world. They came home to America and went right back to work building alliances and prosperity and this sense of America as the world’s leader. There’s nothing in disavowing [that], nothing in what Trump is doing, which is great. Giving the finger to our allies over trade and over previously existing treaties is not greatness. Going back to coal is not greatness. Not being able to call white supremacists immoral and un-American is
not greatness.

“That’s what we have now, and it’s going to be tough to go through it. But America will prevail.”

Thomas Bird performs “Bearing Witness” at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through June 17 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Tickets are $25 to $35. Call (310) 477-2055 or visit bearingwitnesstheplay.com.

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