Women Soldiers: When They Come Home Broken

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Ugly Lies the Bone

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 bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Christianna Nelson and Rory Hammond in 'Ugly Lies the Bone,' Shakespeare & Company 2016. Photo by Ava G. Lindenmaier.

Jess, who used to be a good looking blonde, is back in her hometown near Cape Canaveral, Florida, after three tours of duty in America’s wars in the Middle East. She has been blown up by a roadside bomb. The woman’s right arm is in a cast, her leg is a mess and fire has disfigured much of her body. She hobbles around pushing a walker. She has already spent fourteen months in a Texas hospital where very little was done for her. Now she is a patient in a Florida hospital with a new virtual reality therapy program. In virtual reality, you use special glasses to live in a make believe world; that world is supposed to replace the real one and push the pain out of your mind. It does not work for Jess. She is frustrated. She is angry. She is in a daily rage.

Jess is the central character in Lindsey Ferrentino’s mesmerizing, scalding, moving play Ugly Lies the Bone, on stage now at the Shakespeare and Company Theater in Lenox, Massachusetts. Christianna Nelson gives a powerful performance as Jess, who in return for her service to her country has been given a miserable life that only gets worse as the weeks go by.

At the start of the play, set in the last year of the space shuttle program, 2011, we see the woman soldier arrive at a gas station to confront the man who runs it, apparently a friend of hers. After denouncing him, she turns on her sister and the sister’s boyfriend, who throw up their hands after trying to help her and being constantly rejected. Towards the end of the play, Jess confronts her mother and sister and sees through the double crossing schemes of the sister’s boyfriend. She is told by the supervisor of her virtual reality program that the program is her last chance, but she does not believe her.

Will she just fall apart? Will she make it?

This is not one of those heroic television shows where the disfigured warrior is seen as the hero of a story in which the end points towards full recovery and smiling faces. The television warrior struggles mightily, helped by friends and family, tough grin on his or her face, with victory the goal – the only goal. In real life it isn’t that simple. There is no symphonic music and no optimistic scene after the last commercial. People like Jess, and other vets, live very difficult and painful lives; this is a life of misery, not sound bites.

Ferrentino’s story is brutal and Jess is at the same time a lovable and yet detestable character. Why doesn’t she smile and thank everybody like wounded vets do on television? Why is she so mad at the world? And, finally, why can’t all of us do something, anything, to ease her pain, to ease the pain of all the vets in the current wars? In all of our wars?

Director Daniela Varon has done a fine job of looking into the mind of the wounded vet and telling Jess’s sad story. She has fleshed out the other people in the play – mom, sister, old boyfriend – to show how others are needed by disfigured soldiers. Varon’s direction adds fire to the story.

She gets a phenomenal performance from Nelson as Jess. You can feel her physical pain as she struggles with her walker, frowning all the time, and her emotional pain as she tears old photos down from a wall. You seethe as she seethes. It is a titanic performance.

Other fine performances are by Hamish Allan-Headley as Stevie, Ariel Bock as Mom, Rory Hammond as Kacie and Dylan Chalfy as Kelvin.

The play hits home to audiences because we all feel for our wounded soldiers and, with them, all of the non-combatant women who are killed or wounded in the service. Over all the years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, one hundred women have been killed and 1,000 wounded, just like Jess in the play. Altogether, there are about 200,000 women in the armed services, 74,000 in the army, and they make up about 14% of the total number of military personnel. They all have paid and might pay a high price to serve their country.

Many men and women, like Jess, also participate in the army’s Virtual Reality program to relieve post traumatic stress troubles. In Virtual Reality Iraq, as an example, monitors take vets through war scenes in the Middle East to remind them of their lives there and to help them ease their way back into society here. The game adds scenes of life at home to eradicate their pain. There are other reality games like the one in the play in which the reality game offers soldiers a new and better life in order to push the mental thoughts of pain out of their minds and, in doing so, push the physical pain away, too.

The playwright casts Jess as an “everysoldier” and she has to deal with a nervous mom, a skeptical sister and an old boyfriend. The play does not just probe the soldiers’ problems, but the problems of their friends, neighbors and loved ones – and all of us. What do we do right, and wrong, for our wounded warriors? Do we know how to do the right thing? What is the right thing?

And when will these wars ever end?

Ugly Lies the Bone, like all plays about war, is an indictment of war. It is a strong, sturdy play, too, about a strong warrior, Jess, blown up and nearly killed, who fights back like all of the wounded soldiers fight back. It is a shocker, a jolt, a good, solid, moving story.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Shakespeare & Company. Scenic Design: John McDermott, Costumes: Govane Lohbauer, Lighting: James W. Bilnoski, Sound: Amy Altadonna. The play is directed by Daniela Varon. It runs through August 28.

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