More Danger at Home than at Wartags: plays, Iraq War, play reviews
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at email@example.com.
Cherry Lane Theater
38 Commerce Street
New York, N.Y.
Sergeant Alicia G., who returned from a tour of duty in Iraq in 2006, is fed up. Her son was taken from her by child services, she can’t get through the army’s red tape to win well deserved disability pay, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and she and husband Horace, another returned vet, have to live in a rundown motel because the apartment house where they resided burned down. She sees ghosts of Iraqi soldiers, men and women,in the motel room, is freezing cold and unable to find justice for herself anywhere.
Does this sound familiar? Alicia has many of the afflictions of returning soldiers in all of America’s wars, from the men who could not find work in 1783 when the revolution ended to men who had poor medical care in the Civil War to men who came home hearing machine gun fire wherever they went at the end of World War II. It is an Americana tragedy.
She is the central character in a provocative and dynamic play by Charles Fuller that opened last week in New York. Fuller wrote the well-received A Soldier’s Story in 1982, that won the Pulitzer Prize and became a successful movie. He’s back now with another painful and terrific story about American soldiers and the troubles they face, at home as well as abroad.
Alicia has a bigger problem than her trauma and burned out apartment. She was gang raped in Iraq. Three soldiers attacked and brutalized her. She was told to forget about the incident by an officer, who promised her that the men would be punished, although minimally. Other women in her unit threw their hands in the air in frustration and told her that’s just the way it was in Iraq, except for the woman who told her she murdered the soldier who raped her. Alicia’s efforts to get the trio that savaged her failed, her disability pleas failed, her claims to her son failed. Everything failed. She is miserable.
Then her husband came to the rescue. The very dapper, intelligent, handsome and street smart Horace lived with her in the apartment and helped to straighten out all of her paperwork to make her so far futile efforts to get disability, and a new apartment, more promising. Horace is smart. Horace is protective.
Horace is also a bit of a mystery man.
The pair are threatened everywhere they turn. The owner of the motel pulls a gun on Horace. Fire marshals want to question them about the blaze that gutted their building. They get nasty phone calls on Horace’s often malfunctioning cell phone.
Then tension builds and the play sizzles. It seems headed towards a triumphal finish when we suddenly learn that Horace is not her husband at all. From that moment, a sense of absolute terror pervades the stage for Alicia and the play soars towards a startling conclusion.
Fuller has triumphed in many ways, but, from a history standpoint, he does a superb job of underscoring the problem Iraqi and Afghan vets face and that American soldiers have faced historically. Tens of thousands of them come home with post traumatic stress disorder and do not get the help they need from the army or anyone else. Others come back with arms and legs blown off, hearing gone and wheelchair bound for life. The army helps them, but not as much as they think it should. Alicia represents all of them. Fuller pointed a finger at everybody in the army in this gripping and strikingly drama. A frustrated Alicia scowls in the middle of the play that “if I get killed I’m a hero, but if I live I’m a nuisance.”
What makes you cringe as you watch the play is the knowledge that for over 200 years army vets, men and women, have had problems on the home front when they return from battle. Books have been written about post combat troubles and movies have focused on it. PTSD, rape and depression are not new and not tied to Iraq; they have been with the army for hundreds of years and there is still no solution.
The problem with PTSD victims is that family and friends often cannot spot signs of the disorder. They only know that their husband or son or brother is sad, or troubled, and hope that he will, as everyone says, “snap out of it.” The brother of one of my students, back a year from Iraq, suddenly killed himself, demoralizing his entire family, none of whose members saw the tragedy coming.
Jronically, just last week U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillebrand sponsored an amendment to a bill that would take cases of sexual attacks of soldiers out of the hands of commanding officers in order to give the victims a fairer hearing.
Director Clinton Turner Davis has worked a small miracle with Fuller’s play, building a volcano of tension in a single small motel room. He received sterling performance from Rutina Wesley as the shocked and scared Sgt. Alicia, Grantham Coleman as the slick and yet nervous Horace, Cortez Nance Jr., K.K. Moggie and Matthew Montelongo.
PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Cherry Lane Theater and the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Sets: John McDermott, Costumes: Jessica Jahn, Lighting: Nicole Pearce, Sound: Stan O’Halloran. The play runs through December 15.
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