Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Strange connections: An actress dies and soldiers are murdered.

Last Sunday I attended a memorial service for an actress I had known when she had appeared in one of my musicals, just as I became aware of those two missing soldiers in Iraq who were later found murdered. On the surface these events seem to have little in common, but they are both about unfulfilled lives.

Susan Browning, the actress, had been one of the fine young talents on Broadway in the late sixties, a Tony nominee for her performance as the stewardess in Sondheim's "Company;" the girl who sang "Barcelona" to the delight of all who heard her. By the time I had met her thirty years later at an audition for my musical, she had experienced a failed marriage,a bout of alcoholism, and an eating disorder. She had changed from the slender young beauty of "Company" into an immensely stout woman - only her large, expressive dark eyes connected this Susan to the beauty that she had been. Her audition was superb. She was every bit the feisty, self-absorbed, witty character that I had envisioned for the writer Gertrude Stein in my musical. We immediately cast her in this romp about American's in Paris in the late twenties, and she did not disappoint us. Her performance was exceptional - full of wit, sparkle, and a charming wickedness, with a bit of risk that all splendid actors demonstrate on stage.

I got to know Susan from this regional theatre experience and we discovered that we shared a birthday, February 25th, joking that we could now never forget to send each other a card on that date. After a year or two we forgot. Susan - who later appeared as one of the nuns in "Sister Act" worked less and less frequently and finally retreated into a self imposed exile in her own apartment, a recluse who would not collect her mail or answer the telephone. A sad and lonely life - relieved only by her practise of Buddhism, and by her kind neighbors who took an interest in her well being until the end, comforting her in hospital, and seeking out her family to whom she had been long estranged. Members of that family spoke lovingly of the early Susan at her memorial, but at the end, like Blanche in "Streetcar" Susan depended on the kindness of strangers. Her own agents had failed to attend the funeral, sending an actor to represent them.

I had expected the memorial to be crowded with friends and fellow actors given the many Broadway shows and films Susan had appeared in, but except for a handful of family, and those West Side neighbors, there were only a few actor friends in attendance - those who had appeared with her in "Big River" a musical version of Huck Finn, and had fond recollections of her as a fellow cast member. I am afraid that a Buddhist memorial held in a small Upper East Side Unitarian Church on a fiercely warm summer Sunday held few attractions for most of her former colleagues who had not seen her in years. Susan, believing in alternative medicine, had refused to take her thyroid medication, and that together with her obesity had led to her death. Her reclusiveness had not encouraged her family, her old friends and acquaintances to share her last years. One of her neighbors remarked to me about her book lined apartment and her great intelligence, but few could fathom the mystery of so much promise ending so sadly. I suppose there is no good answer for the question of how a woman of beauty, intelligence, and great talent, could end her life in such loneliness and isolation. Stuff happens. And despite all the twelve step programs and the touchy feely belief that everyone can be saved from themselves, some can't.

It may seem a strange leap from the death of a lonely Susan Browning to that of the young soldiers who were captured and murdered in Iraq this week - but it is a leap I ask you to take with me. Ultimately, we are all connected by our common humanity. We all die alone, although in different ways. They too died alone and suffering, but in this case, not with the disappointments of a long life, but as young men abandoned to their fates by a government who had asked more of them than that government had been willing to give in return. Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Oregon, and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, brutalized beyond recognition, could not be easily identified when found. These young men had not made bad choices that led to ruined lives, their only bad choice was trusting in their government with its Rumsfeld doctrine, believing that they would go into combat properly armed and supported, and be welcomed as liberators rather than shot at as occupiers. Sent into danger in a Humvee without the necessary force to back them up, and isolated from the other Humvees who had gone off to chase insurgents, they were ambushed and outnumbered. One of these soldier's fathers spoke of the betrayal he felt in having his son die in this ill concieved, ill managed war. Relatives described Private Mechaca as "very nervous. He had never smoked, and he had started smoking. He was waking up in the night, very disturbed. He couldn't sleep well. He was very nervous, very jittery." He had seen the army as road to advancement in life. And he believed in what he was doing. But his young life ended on a road in Iraq, ambushed, brutalized, and murdered by persons unknown.

We are told that the chain of command is looking into this incident. Appropriate noises will be made, and more promises that young soldiers will not be left abandoned to the mercy of insurgents in the future, promises that cannot, and will not be kept in the endless fog of this war by this administration. Some deaths cannot be prevented. When an aging actress isolates herself and that isolation leads to her death it is a sad and cautionary tale about aging, depression and human nature - and what we do to ourselves. But when young soldiers are ambushed and murdered, it is a sad and cautionary tale about what is done to us by a misguided and arrogant government. These young men deserved better; not just to be mourned and forgotten after an investigation into the incident. In this case, the incident is the war. And the war is the Bush Administration.