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In ‘The Comfort Team,’ an affecting look at the many griefs of war

By Celia Wren,

You have to take solace where you can find it. For Chandra, a Navy bride whose honeymoon was interrupted by the U.S. military’s surge in Iraq, there’s consolation in waving sage-and-lavender incense around her lonely new home in Norfolk. Wearing a purple bathrobe, she stands beneath her living room chandelier — a converted boat propeller — and does tai-chi-style moves, smoke seeping from bowls in her hands.

Meanwhile, an experienced and emotionally repressed Navy wife named Vicky adopts different tactics: She keeps herself busy cooking up red-white-and-blue comestibles, such as Patriotic Punch (cranberry juice, blue Kool-Aid ice cubes).

The coping strategies of spouses like Chandra and Vicky play out in quirky detail in “The Comfort Team,” the funny and affecting, if sometimes workmanlike, new play by Deborah Brevoort. Now on view in a handsome production at Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk, home to the world’s largest naval base, “The Comfort Team” has narrative rhythms that can seem familiar: It’s part fish-out-of-water tale, part odd-couple buddy story, part behind-the-scenes peek at a milieu many of us rarely glimpse. But because Brevoort (best known for “The Women of Lockerbie”) spent years interviewing dozens of military spouses in preparation for writing this script — and because, as an artist, she knows an evocative detail when she sees one — the world of the play comes across as bracingly vivid.

It doesn’t hurt that “The Comfort Team,” directed by VSC artistic director Chris Hanna, showcases top-tier performances. (The play is the latest entry in VSC’s American Soil series, which commissions and stages plays about southeastern Virginia, past and present.) Portraying characters of different ages, backgrounds and mind-sets who are forced to bond, and to meet the expectations of a demanding and hierarchical military culture, the actors have ample opportunity to display their considerable comic skills. But given the setting — the story takes place in 2008, during the troop surge — they also have to conjure up scenes of agonized waiting and worry.

A first glance at that propeller chandelier, for instance, reduces its new owner to tears, reminding her of her husband, assigned to a Navy unit patrolling rivers around Baghdad. In moments like these, actress Erika LaVonn brings out the vulnerability of Chandra, a therapist and transplanted New Yorker who is ill-prepared for the stoic, protocol-filled life of a Navy spouse. In other scenes, LaVonn’s Chandra displays humor and savvy as she befriends, but also spars with, the rank-conscious Marcia (Sandra Struthers-Clerc), Vicky (Eileen Rivera) and other wives.

Chandra quickly falls out with Mrs. Yates (the hilarious Barbara Broughton), a prim, bossy admiral’s widow who says things like “Poppycock!” and likes to read aloud from a 1942 etiquette primer called “The Navy Wife.” “You need to realize that the eyes of the Navy are always upon you!” the scandalized Mrs. Yates tells Chandra, after the latter criticizes the community’s stiff-upper-lip ethos.

Chandra finds herself mentoring Jo (the excellent Lucy Bonino), a teenage wife with a pink Mohawk and a brand-new baby. Though she stomps around in punk attire, acting tough, Jo is frightened and broke — her husband forgot to give her money before deploying — and her story adds an extra jolt of poignancy to the tale. (Terry Summers Flint’s set underscores the play’s sadder undercurrents with a montage of empty packing boxes and spare furniture, set against a backdrop that’s blue, like a stretch of water.)

Despite her brusque manner, it’s Jo who proves most helpful when a stressed-out Vicky is assembling “widow baskets” for newly bereaved families. Sitting on the floor, the teenager reads aloud from the list of forms the baskets need to contain: among others, a claim for death benefits; a reimbursement for funeral and burial expenses; an application to the Gold Star Wives of America; and a paper titled “Choosing a Cemetery: Things to Keep in Mind.” On top of the paperwork goes Tylenol, and a packet of tissues.

And some cookies — decorated in red, white and blue.

Wren is a freelance writer.

“The Comfort Team”

by Deborah Brevoort. Directed by Chris Hanna; costume design, Jeni Schaefer; lighting, Jesse Klug; sound, Martha Goode; projections, Shawn Duan. With Luis Vega. Two hours. Through Nov. 18. Produced by Virginia Stage Company at the Wells Theatre, at the corner of Monticello Avenue and Tazewell Street in Norfolk. www.vastage.com or 800-982-2787.

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