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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Three plays seen during the last couple of weeks have taken different approaches: In Lady (Lady), Craig Wright views the issues of the war through a darkly comic and very small lens, his dramatic device for tackling the subject of the Iraq war is a hunting reunion of three middle-aged friends. Michael Weller's Beast (review) wraps an angry outcry about the lack of respect and support given to Iraq's mentally and physically wounded into the framework of a surreal road trip by two badly maimed veterans.
In Conflict is not fiction but a documentary forged from Yvonne Latty's published interviews with dozens of men and women who did tours of duty in Iraq. Though the words are spoken by actors, these aren't invented characters, but real flesh and blood, ordinary soldiers. Some, like the two men in the Weller play, have lost limbs. Many suffer in one way or another from post-traumatic stress, with one soldier who came home physically intact nevertheless envisioning himself as a mental amputee ("Canít nobody give me a prosthetic mind"} The words they speak are their own, not prettied up by Ms. Latty and so In Conflict is the kind of political theater that relies more on the authenticity of its presentation than star power (think Guantanomo and The Exonerated).
Unlike another journalist, George Packer, who adapted his own New Yorker article Betrayed for The Culture Project, Yvonne Latty left it to Douglas C. Wager, the artistic director of the Temple University Theater, to make her book of interviews with soldiers who served in Iraq stageworthy. Wager has remained true to Latty's objective in writing her book: to give voice to the ordinary soldiers who are more often than not pre-empted from the news by the men who sent them to Iraq. However, he has given each soldier's story its own dramatic framework and seen to it that the presentation overall connects the individual interviews into a cohesive stage portrait. To do so, he interspersee the interview accounts with some group sequences like marine training sessions, and an anti-war rally led by Kelly Dougherty, who joined the National Guard for college tuition and after being involuntarily deployed with the military police unit to Baghdad and became Executive Director of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
The dramatic aura is established with limited but quite effective stagecraft: Set designer Andrew Laine's revolving panels are dynamically lit by J. Dominic Chacon. Christopher Cappello and Paul Winnick add propulsive sound design. Warren Bass's video design allows Miss Latty to be on hand to set the scene for some of the interviews but it's never allowed to take over from the men and women on stage.
What gives these often gut wrenching accounts their real strength is the fact that the actors standing in for the men and women interviewed are all graduate students or recent graduates of the Temple University Drama Department makes it easy to imagine any one of them not just being stand-ins for the veterans whose stories comprise this drama, but BEING them. Perhaps its the young actors' own awareness of this "there for the grace of God go I" that has enabled them to perform so forcefully.
While as many of the soldiers you'll meet, joined the National Guard as their chief means of paying for college and accessing a better life, there are just as many for whom a career in the military was the culmination of a long held dream, and a chance to get away from their small towns. Patriotism and belief in the war's mission is much in evidence. But so is bitter disillusion. Certainly the episode with Kelly Dougherty, the young woman heading the the Iraq anti-war grouphardly tosses a bouquet of roses at President Bush, ending as it does with her talking about the people who don't really want to hear about what went on over there and how she can't reconcile her mother's "I support you and I'm proud of you" with her "voting for a president who is doing such horrible things" which might equally have led to her coming home in a flag-draped casket.
Of course just looking at and listening to young people facing lives without legs or hands and filled with nightmarish memories is in and of itself a powerful anti-war statement. But while you may find In Conflict hard to watch, as one of the men, Herold Noel, puts it "The hardest thing about being in Iraq is being in Iraq."
As of October 7th, In Conflict will run in rotating rep (every other week) with Ronan Noone's solo play The Atheist starring Campbell Scott and directed by Justin Waldman. You can see what it's about by reading our review of Scott's bravura performance as Augustine Early during the show's run at last summer's Williamstown Theatre Festival: The Atheist review.