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Tunnel Rat

April 5 - 29, 2012
By Neil Cole

In late 1965, after a run-in with the law, 17 year old Ronnie Giles was given the option of joining the Army...or going to jail. He chose the Army and inevitably-VietNam. Because he was short, he was "volunteered" to go into the Vietcong Tunnels in and around the jungles of Chu Chi. By now it is early 1966. He is 18 years old and yet another reluctant Tunnel Rat is born.

Tunnel Rat, written by acclaimed Australian playwright Neil Cole, explores the complex nature of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and what is important to a man...and a nation.

The cast included Stefanie Johnsen, Joyce Hshieh and Mark Shallow as Ronnie Giles. Directed by Brian LeTraunik.

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Chicago Theater Beat - Katy Walsh

Genesis Theatrical Productions presents the American premiere of Tunnel Rat. Ronnie Giles is a Vietnam vet. At age 17, he was given the choice of serving time in prison or in the army. He chose war. Now, as a sixty year old man, Ronnie is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He has reoccurring flashbacks. As a soldier, his assignments sent him underground. The Viet Cong guerrillas utilized an elaborate tunnel system for transporting supplies and organizing surprise attacks. Ronnie's job was to enter the tunnel system to gather intelligence. During one of his missions, he killed a woman. She continues to haunt him as he relives his past over and over again. Tunnel Rat gnaws at the living casualties of war.

Playwright Neil Cole shares the experiences of Vietnam Veteran Ronnie Giles. Cole has the story unfold in the therapist's office. The main character moves in and out of a delusional state as the audience pieces his life together. Under the direction of Brian LeTraunik, the cast thoughtfully examines a soldier's struggle with honor during an unpopular war. At the focal point, Mark J. Shallow (Ronnie) effectively transforms back and forth from innocence to cynicism. From the start, Shallow delivers a poignant hopelessness that looks to be unresolvable.

...an animated Stefanie Johnsen (therapist) brings a refreshing sweetness to the soldier's story...

Along with Joyce Hshieh, the trio cast zealously morph in and out of Ronnie's warped memories. The repetitive flashbacks are interesting...

There is a story here and this talented cast commits to telling it.

Windy City Times - Mary Shen Barnidge

We know three things at the outset of this medical-mystery yarn: 1) During the Viet Nam war, the enemy operated from an interconnected network of underground bunkers, 2) When so-called "carpet bombing" failed to eradicate these hidden fortifications - you can still see them today on guided tours in Saigon - U.S. forces sent personnel into the subterranean fortresses to hunt them down, and 3) Since the conduits were sized to accommodate soldiers of smaller stature than your average Yank, the shortest GIs were steered toward these missions.

Ronnie Giles, the hero of our play, was one of these "tunnel rats" (as they were dubbed by their peers) and, 42 years later, it's still eating at him. This is manifested in hallucinations where the ring of his cell-phone triggers memories of the doomed convoy whose driver was his own last-minute replacement, where the ghost of a female guerrilla whom he had to shoot harasses him like a pesky kid sister, and his psychologist appears to be garbed in the black "pajamas" of a Vietnamese sapper. Is Giles suffering from survivor's guilt or killer's remorse, or is he fabricating his symptoms in order to keep receiving his pension? Does he still wear his uniform (with all his medals carefully displayed) because it justifies his past actions, are his troubles actually rooted in self-consciousness over his lack of height - or does the source of his malaise matter less, in the end, than his need to accept what can't be changed and get on with his life?

Playwright Neil Cole's clinical approach to his topic is a welcome departure from the abstract emotionality too often adopted by civilian playwrights attempting vicarious replications of a singularly ill-documented war. The dramatic conceit of the aforementioned shrink and dead VC assuming the auxiliary roles in Giles' persistent recollections is kept from descending into precocity by the simplicity of Genesis Theatrical Productions' technical design and the unaffected tone imposed upon the text by Mark J. Shallow, Stefanie Johnson, and Joyce Hshieh under the direction of Brian LeTraunik. Cole's look back to traumas suffered nearly a half-century ago provides intriguing insights into what will soon almost certainly become a problem once again, in addition to serving as a sound-check on the freshly rehabbed stage in Uptown's Preston Bradley auditorium.

The Reader - Justin Hayford

An American GI at 17, Ronnie Giles spent a year crawling through enemy tunnels dug under Vietnam's Cu Chi district, looking for "intelligence." Instead, he found and killed a Vietnamese woman who was sleeping in one. Forty years later he suffers multiple daily flashbacks. Based on a true story, this 2011 play by Australian writer Neil Cole has the ingredients for powerful theater, especially given Giles's belief that the Vietcong's cause was nobler than America's.