Homeless veterans bring life to the stage in ‘Truly Dually’

Jeff Northrup is a homeless veteran and a recovering alcoholic who was prescribed anti-anxiety medication. He’s been living in shelters and on the streets of Las Vegas for 10 years. He’s tried to get his life together, only to return to the veterans shelter three times.

But this weekend, for a few hours, he’ll be a star.

Northrup and six other homeless veterans are bringing their real life experiences to the stage at the U.S. VETS – Las Vegas production of “Truly Dually,” a musical about the hardships and challenges faced by people just like them.

“I’m trying to turn my life around,” said Northrup, who as Park Man plays the starring role in the 1-hour, 45-minute production at the West Las Vegas Theatre.

An audition notice seeking actors for the play was posted at the U.S. VETS shelter downtown. The homeless veterans then spent more than two months rehearsing with a cast of community actors and members of the U.S. VETS staff under the direction of Tara Unger, a U.S. VETS intern and graduate of the Las Vegas Academy of the Performing Arts.

“It all came together just as I had visualized it. We had fabulous camaraderie,” Northrup, a 48-year-old Navy veteran, said after a preview of the musical Thursday night.

Written by Michael Ullman, who holds a doctorate in social welfare, the two-act play features 25 scenes and 19 songs. With no musical training or background as a lyricist, his inspiration for the script came from his experience working at a homeless shelter in Honolulu in 2005.

“I was frustrated with the public’s lack of understanding of solutions for homelessness,” Ullman said Thursday. Those solutions can be “as simple as giving them permanent supportive housing or long-term care to keep them housed.”

“Instead of warehousing them in shelters, help them get permanently housed and medication and substance abuse recovery. Help them get reconnected to their families,” he said.

In bringing the production to Las Vegas this year for the first mainland performance, he made slight adaptations and added a new song, “Wall of Remembrance,” to highlight the plight of homeless veterans, estimated to be 500,000 nationwide with some 3,000 in the Las Vegas Valley.

The script is about a young boy and his parents who encounter a throng of homeless vets and other homeless people in a park near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

While the boy is comforted by his mother, the boy’s father is offended by the homeless vets, whom he refers to as “these people.”

Northrup’s Park Man advocates respect for displaced veterans while he puts himself last to help a non-veteran homeless man become a tenant in an apartment owned by the boy’s parents.

Northrup spent his childhood in Lafayette, Ind. The last time he appeared on stage was in high school in Phoenix.

A self-described 30-year alcoholic, he said he came to Las Vegas in 1999 and is on his third stint staying at the U.S. VETS shelter.

“It was a series of happenstances that I got into this,” he said, referring to events that happened after his Navy service in San Diego from 1979 to 1981.

He has spent the past five weeks rehearsing the musical’s lead role after another cast member dropped out to take a job. Northrup said his biggest challenge was “overcoming the notion that I couldn’t sing.”

The message he wants to get across is that “no matter what, we all deserve respect and dignity.”

A character called Grocery Cart Man is played by David Rath, who on stage and in life is “truly dually,” the term for having been diagnosed with mental illness and substance abuse.

Rath, who is not a veteran, said he hopes the musical enlightens the public that “there is hope for people who are mentally ill and homeless.”

Rath said the play “made me a stronger person than I was before my nervous breakdown. It has helped me become more of who I wanted to be and was capable of being. … It’s helped me work with others much better.”

The cast of homeless veterans includes “Wall of Remembrance” soloist Larry Cooks, a 50-year Las Vegan who joined the Marines in 1970 when he was about to be drafted in the Army.

“I don’t look like I’m homeless,” he said. “There are so many out here like us.”

Joe Battaglia, known in the play as Wheelchair Man, served as a Marine from 1973 to 1976. He has dedicated his performance to his two brothers who were also Marines and who both died of complications from exposure to dioxin-laden Agent Orange in Vietnam.

“Two years ago I was a mess,” the 55-year-old Rochester, N.Y., native said. “Now I’ve got a job and an apartment.”

Disabled veteran Brian Barkley, 47, plays the parts of a psychiatrist and new tenant in the musical. An Army truck driver from 1982 to 1984, he said being a character was difficult at times because of his real life experiences.

People who look down on homeless veterans should realize that “they’re human beings that just have issues. They’re not worthless bums. They need help. They can be productive in society,” Barkley said.

He said that like Northrup, he hopes he can find a career in acting.

Jerry Miller, who is Bench Man in the musical, served with an Army tank unit in Germany from 1976 to 1980. After the Army, he drove a Corvette and worked as a carpenter until 10 years ago when he suffered a brain aneurysm. He said he couldn’t work after that “and lost everything.”

“I lived on the street for four years and walked the entire state of Florida homeless,” he said.

With $20 in his pocket, Miller came to Las Vegas.

“I lived three months in a ditch here,” he said.

Thursday’s performance “meant everything,” he said. “My eyes watered over a lot. It hurt to see it because I lived it.”

Bill Rahm, from Washington, who served in the Army from 1974 to 1976, plays two characters, “Gate Man” and a transgender street person.

Terry Harmdierks, an Air Force veteran from Iowa who came to Las Vegas in 1978 to work in the casino industry, plays a park policeman.

One observer at Thursday’s performance, Donna Dokes-Walker, a Salvation Army case manager, said the musical rings true.

“The mental illness, the sleeping in the parks, harassment by children, the insensitiveness of the general public. It’s very true to life,” she said.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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