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Vortex’s latest surrounds the Battle of the Somme

Caedmon Holland stars in “The Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme.” (Courtesy of Ryan Dobbs)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme” moves to a theater of ghosts.

Frank McGuinness’ play depicts a group of young Protestant Irishmen as they move toward the carnage of World War I.

The play opens at the Vortex Theatre on Friday, Aug. 30, continuing on weekends through Sept. 22.

More than 100 years on, the Battle of the Somme remains an open wound.

In 1916, more than 3 million men fought in the battle and 1 million were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest in human history. Trench warfare gave the Germans an advantage because they dug their ditches deeper than the Allied forces, resulting in a better sight line.

“It was horrible,” director Marty Epstein said. “It was one of the worst.”

McGuinness focuses on eight young Ulster men who signed up to defend king and country.

“It’s a memory play,” Epstein said. “It’s told through the eyes of the one surviving member.”

All of the men share a working class background except one: the survivor Pyper. Although he could have joined the ranks as an officer, he refuses to become a member of the aristocracy.

Craig is the discreetly gay Adonis; Millen and Moore resemble a bickering elderly couple; Roulston comes to doubt his faith; Crawford is self-lacerating; Anderson and McIlwaine remain as thick and fierce as their mustaches.

The play opens in 1969. Pyper, now 80, has been tortured by his memories and survivor guilt since the war ended.

“He’s very angry with God,” Epstein said. “It’s pretty much ruined his life. He says early on that he’s hoping to die.”

Contrasting the bluff bravado of the frontline with the truths of their brief time on leave, McGuinness exposes the fears, insecurities, loves and passions of a generation facing an early death.

“We start to see that they’re changed men,” Epstein said. “They’re all seeing this is a dreadful war and we’re all going to die. They have fears they’ve never had before.”

“We don’t see the war,” he added, “It’s about the effect it has on the participant.” “We’re not making a sacrifice,” says one as the deadliest battle approaches. “We are the sacrifice.”

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