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A CurtainUp Review
Soldier's Heart

I'm trying to help you here, Sergeant. In case you didn't notice, there's nowhere to hide in the desert. You need somebody to have your back. You can be a bitch if you want. But if you're my bitch, then everybody else will leave you alone. It's your choice. — Baines
Soldier's Heart
Michael Colby Jones and Mairin Lee (Photo: Mike Peters)
When Tammy Ryan's play Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods had its world premiere at Premiere Stages in 2010, it had an encouraging critical reception ( review) that was further rewarded when it won the Francesca Primus Prize for Playwriting given by the American Theater Critics Association.

It's story about one of the seventeen thousand boys who fled Sudan during the Civil War of 1980 to escape the brutality was finely dramatized by Ryan with heartfelt compassion. Now we are again able to get immersed in another drama by this splendid playwright, this time for its New Jersey premiere.

Ryan brings a heart-wrenching experience into alignment with the blisteringly traumatic aftershock of rape as it applies to a thirty year-old Sergeant in the Marines Casey Johnson (Mairin Lee). Casey is, to use the old phrase, gung ho and looking forward to her first deployment to Iraq. It is September 2006. Raised in a military family, patriotic to its core, and ultra organized, she displays a strong sense of duty as well as the independence and confidence that allows her to raise her ten year-old son Sean (Azlan Landry). This, with only minimal help from her ex Marine/ex husband Kevin (Benton Greene), with whom she shares custody.

Just as Casey has come to terms with the disintegration of their marriage due in large part to Kevin's prolonged and difficult recovery from post-traumatic-stress disorder, she is now about to be almost completely dependent upon her mother Margie (Kim Zimmer), an ex alcoholic who works at Foodland, for taking care of her son Sean in her absence.

The play's opening scene is a wonderfully composed, rather funny, sit-down between the two women as Casey methodically reviews Sean's meticulously organized daily schedule with the slightly overwhelmed Margie. The older woman listens to her daughter with a bemused, semi-detached attentiveness and defensiveness. The scene serves to define Margie, a well-written, complicated character who is vividly portrayed by Zimmer. I thought it worth mentioning Zimmer's impressive imprint in that Lee, otherwise has the major dramatic burden in the play, one that keeps her on stage most of the time.

Lee's performance reveals her dramatic range as it also tears at our emotions. The journey she makes from her I've-got-it-all-together-and-worked-out place at the beginning to someone at the brink of no-return is a terrible one but also completely credible. We see how the sudden reversal of her self-assurance and ability to function as a parent and as a normal woman impacts her family.

The remainder of the play, under the sharp direction of John J. Wooten, charts Casey's nine month deployment as Assistant Commander of Convoy Security, Military Police. It is 2007, after Fallujah and before the Surge and her return home a mental and physical wreck. She begs Margie to keep Sean away from her on the pretext that she needs time to recover. That time doesn't seem to appear.

Margie has prevailed upon Kevin, who works at the local Home Depot, to help get to the bottom of Casey's dysfunctional behavior. Greene is excellent as the still-healing soldier who is not about to desert Casey in her darkest time. Both Margie and Kevin see that things are going from bad to worse — even after Casey, who has been unable to eat, sleep, leave the house, or even to see her son, reveals the circumstances surrounding her being raped by her Commanding Officer Baines (Michael Colby Jones). Adamant about not wanting to make charges or to get help from the V.A., Casey finds refuge in alcohol, but little relief from the memories that continue to haunt her. Jones is chilling as the Captain who has no hesitation using charm and brute force without fear of reprisal.

Joseph Gourley's excellent set design for the interior of a home makes good use of the large open playing area that also serves as gateway to Iraq. Some fine video design and lighting allows for smooth transitions.

Those whom she cannot keep from blaming for some of her experiences are her immediate superior supervisor Staff Sergeant (Landon G. Woodson), a relentlessly "by the book" Marine, and twenty-five year-old Lance Corporal Jamie Hernandez (Erica Camarano). She is a gunner in Casey's Humvee who is openly hostile to Casey, the only other woman and whom she perceives as a threat. A fine performance by Hernandez becomes finer late in the play when she reveals the insecurities that provoked her actions, as well as her own decision to bring her own charges against the Captain.

Although Casey's capacity and tenacity to follow through with Hernandez and also get the medical attention she needs dominate the plot, the play also gives ample time for others to face the demons that plague them: the war-damaged but compassionate Kevin; and the enviably tolerant and supportive Margie whose marriage to her recently deceased husband, also a veteran and an alcoholic, was evidently no picnic.

The issue of exposing unchecked and unmonitored misogyny within the armed services is not exactly revelatory. The potential for it to be as destructive and intrusive an element of risk and of danger in war time is a very real threat to those who choose to honorably serve their country. It is a story worth telling and it has been dramatized here very well.
Soldier's Heart by Tammy Ryan
Directed by John J.Wooten

Cast: Mairin Lee (Casey) Kim Zimmer (Margie), Michael Colby Jones (1st Lt. Baines), Landon g. Woodson (Staff Sergeant Williams), Erica Camarano, Benton Greene (Kevin), Azlan Landry (Sean), Zane King Beers (Iraqi Boy)
Stage Manager: Dale Smallwood
Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth
Casting Director: Carol Hanzel
Fight Captain: Benton Greene
Set Design; Joseph Courley
Lighting Design: JanieBbullard
Props Design: Karen Cahill
Video Design: Bryan Pekarek/Ian Alfano
Dramaturg: Clare Drobot
Originally produced by the Pittsburgh Playhouse of Point Park University
Running time: two hours including intermission
Premiere Stages at Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union NJ
Tickets: $30.00
Performances: Thursday and Fridays at 8 p, Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm.
From 07/10/14 Opened 07/13/14 Ends 07/27/14
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 07/11/14
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