For 3 Capital Fringe playwrights, PTSD is a personal matter

Kendra Noelle Richard - From left, Cristen Stephansky, David Berkenbilt, William Powell, Jr. and Tramaine Stevenson in the production "BenchMARKS," directed by Colleen Theresa Brown.

Coming to the Capital Fringe Festival this year: America’s overseas conflicts, with at least three shows dealing head-on with the military and post-traumatic stress disorder. Each production is personal, from someone with hands-on experience:

The nurse

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“PTSD is like Groundhog Day — every day is the same day over and over again,” says Melanie Fiona Bevell-Jackson, 46, of Virginia Beach. “One person told me it plays on and on, like a skipping record. Every happy thought is interrupted by this hideous flashback.”

Why explain all this on a stage?

“Being a nurse,” Bevell-Jackson says, “you’re always looking for a way to help somebody.”

BenchMARKS” is her first play, something she wrote in three weeks as she commuted to a job in Baltimore.

“It was easy,” she says of writing, even though she has no theater background. Bevell-Jackson is a former Army medic who signed up for the military at 17; she intended to join the reserves but then told her recruiter she was seeking active duty, which lasted four years. She was stationed in the United States and Germany and never saw combat.

“My role has always been supportive,” she says.

“BenchMARKS” is based on two veterans, one from the Korean War and the other from Vietnam. One character is based on a patient Bevell-Jackson knew; the other is a composite. Wives are seen in flashback, and not everything addressed in the play is combat-related.

“I took all my interactions and experiences to get a picture of what it’s like to deal with PTSD on a daily basis,” explains Bevell-Jackson, who grew up in Northern Virginia and is working as a nurse in the Newport News area. (She has also worked as a military contract nurse and in civilian hospitals.) “I’ve been moved by the stories of the service members and the civilians. . . . A lot of what I found in the emergency room setting is [that] when people come in for something physical, there’s also something emotional.”

She worries that too few people take PTSD seriously. When Bevell-Jackson shared her script with a few veterans, one reacted by seeking treatment. For her, that validates the play.

“I really want to get this message out. When they come back and they are broken,” she says of the soldiers, “we have to take care of them.”

The brother

Jimi Stanton, 25, is an actor with a bit of traction in Boston, where he was recently nominated as outstanding actor in the Elliot Norton Awards’ small/fringe category.

“Outside the Wire” is a side trip into writing. The drama is “very loosely based,” Stanton says, on his brother, Army Staff Sgt. David Stanton, who found it difficult to ease back into civilian life after tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The family didn’t really understand what he went through and how to deal with it,” Stanton says from the Boston suburb of Natick. “One tough night, everything hit the fan. When the dust settled, I realized this was a story that needed to be told for everyone.”

The play’s 10 scenes alternate from the present — being home after active duty — to the past, and deployment in Iraq. It features videotaped interviews with actors improvising as the characters Stanton created with director Daniel Marcum.

The show was well received in brief incarnations around the Boston area in 2010 and 2011, and it earned a special citation at the Massachusetts Statehouse from the state’s secretary of veterans’ services on Veterans’ Day 2011.

“I never wrote a play before,” says Stanton, who acts in this drama. He was nervous about asking his brother to talk about his experiences, “but in the end it was very helpful. It opened up a strand of communication between us. Instead of asking him to talk about his feelings, we had a goal — working on this show.”

Stanton’s brother checked it for authenticity, “Making sure soldiers were wearing the right gear, getting into proper formations, making sure we had the right patches. He definitely influenced the details,” Jimi says.

David’s doing well, Jimi adds — out of the military and in school, caring for his family and young son. The actor-writer is pleased to hear that PTSD is a theme at the Fringe Festival.

“We don’t see a lot of the things that are happening over there, and what the soldiers are going through when they get back,” he says. Exploring the issue with audiences is “incredibly therapeutic. There is no greater feeling than talking about your story and having people come up to you and say, This was important to me.”

The veteran

Richard D. Graham Jr. didn’t recognize he had PTSD until years after his Marine Corps service in the Persian Gulf War as part of the fifth U.S. unit on the ground.

“Your brain is always in this mode of being on guard,” says Graham, 43. “It can be sleeping disorders, problems with stress — every vet is different. With me, sometimes — I don’t want to say it’s paranoia, but I get overly sensitive to my surroundings, to where I’m always watching to see if someone’s watching me. It’s taken me a lot of work to get over some of those things.”

Graham’s one-man show, recommended for audiences 18 and older (for its language and tales of substance abuse and self-destructive behavior, he says), is bluntly titled “What It’s Like: One Veteran’s Tale of Addiction, Survival, and PTSD.” He grew up in Morrisdale, Pa., where the career options appeared to be pumping gas, mining coal as his father and grandfather had done, or joining the military. He was 17 when he signed up.

He started writing after struggling with civilian life and winding up in a substance abuse program, where he took great encouragement from a prickly Vietnam vet who told him, “I can relate to that. You need to keep writing.” His girlfriend, actress Michelle A. Banks, encouraged Graham to channel his experiences for the stage after they caught some Fringe shows last year.

“I told her my stories,” he says, “and she got the idea I should maybe write a story of my own.” (Banks is directing the piece.)

His goal for the show? “I hope to add some insight for people who may not understand that it’s not our fault for how we are, but at the same time we are responsible for our actions,” Graham says. “In the military, you’re taught that you can get through anything. Sometimes that’s true, but it’s very misleading, because sometimes we can’t.”

BenchMARKS

by Fiona Bevell-Jackson, part of the Capital Fringe Festival, Thursday through July 28. Visit capitalfringe.org. At Goethe Institut on July 12, 13, 18, 20 and 21.

Outside the Wire

by Jimi Stanton. At Fort Fringe’s Redrum on July 11, 13, 17 and 20.

What It’s Like: One Veteran’s Tale of Addiction, Survival, and PTSD

written and performed by Richard D. Graham Jr. At Goethe Institut on July 14, 19, 23, 25 and 27.

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