Theater of War at Woolly Mammoth: A fighting chance to grasp battle's aftermath

TALKING WAR: The onstage panel included, from left, Bryan Doerries, Michael Willis, William P. Nash, Sarah Wade, Jonathan Morgenstein and Kim Donahue.
TALKING WAR: The onstage panel included, from left, Bryan Doerries, Michael Willis, William P. Nash, Sarah Wade, Jonathan Morgenstein and Kim Donahue. (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Onstage at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the mighty warrior Ajax lost his mind. Embittered by a slight to his honor, Ajax -- the title character in a 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy by Sophocles -- slays a field's worth of livestock, deliriously mistaking the animals for his enemies.

Odysseus, Ajax's nemesis, falters at the door when he hears that the great but unhinged soldier is frolicking in the offal. Athena, the goddess watching over this mad descent, asks Odysseus, "Are you afraid to gaze on a maniac?"

"That wasn't weird," a young Iraq war veteran insisted from the audience during the long talk-back that followed Tuesday night's hour-long staged reading. The speaker, describing the hazards of combat, was addressing Ajax's rage: "Hey, you had to do what you had to do. But when you snap out of that fog, you don't feel human."

That illustrates the strategy of Theater of War, which uses classic dramas as an unconventional field dressing for the kinds of modern combat issues that sometimes get overlooked. For the past two years, Theater of War Director Bryan Doerries has alternated Sophocles' "Ajax" and "Philoctetes" to spur dialogue about post-traumatic stress disorder, survivor guilt and other war-related maladies, and the plays are hardly the thing. The dramas frame conversation, and Doerries, working under a Department of Defense contract, has arranged these presentation-dialogues for more than 20,000 military personnel and families, largely on military bases and in hotel conference rooms.

Tuesday's event at Woolly marked a transition, though. This was the first of the project's 117 showings that Doerries, 34, did not direct. It was also the first performance hosted by a noteworthy theater, thanks to a two-year, $250,000 grant and partnership with the USO, aimed at teaching Theater of War techniques to troupes and universities, which will carry on the mission themselves. (Confirmed participants include major regional companies in Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco; Woolly will offer this again one night in February.)

The Theater of War method seems simple: Tug at the audience's hearts with timeless tales of soldiers on the brink, and see what gets unlocked within the viewers (still a heavily military crowd at Tuesday's invitation-only event, despite an effort to mix in knowledgeable civilians). At Woolly, the house lights were kept up and the actors wore street clothes and read from scripts, yet the delivery of "Ajax" was still intense. Even during the brief rehearsal period, "we couldn't keep the actors down," said Woolly dramaturge Miriam Weisfeld.

Reg E. Cathey twirled slowly around his music stand as an increasingly feverish Ajax, and he played the warrior's long suicide scene on his knees. As Tecmessa, Ajax's mistress, tears streamed down Dawn Ursula's cheeks as her anguished character begged for her man to return to sanity.

Doerries doesn't give the audience time to breathe after the reading. Instead, panelists are ushered to the stage to share reactions. Chaplain Kim Donahue, speaking first, needed a moment to compose herself.

"This play is very much what I went through," Donahue eventually said of her time in Iraq, which included organizing a funeral for a soldier who died by his own hand. "Very, very much."

Doerries, looking quite "Mad Men" in his trim black suit and retro glasses, presided like an impassioned professor, dramatically summing up the "Ajax" back story before the play and nimbly moderating the potentially inflammatory chat afterward. When a spectator in the balcony protested angrily about the policies that led to this past decade's wars, Doerries smoothly redirected the flow.

"Tonight is not about policy," Doerries said, "but about healing."

So Sarah Wade of the Wounded Warrior Project spoke movingly, for instance, about her husband's arm loss, brain injuries and the rash of complications that she says typically get scant attention. That, in turn, unlocked a response from a woman in the audience -- a veteran of the recent wars -- who has struggled profoundly with her soldier husband's psychosis.

So it went, and so Doerries hopes it will continue to go. He characterizes himself as "an evangelist" for the classics, but he also views military people as "living lives of mythic proportions" and thus ideal for Sophocles (who, as Doerries unfailingly points out, was an officer himself). If he keeps everyone in a bit of a vise -- the reading and the impressively composed, probing response nearly topped three hours, with no break -- the participants seemed willing to spend time analyzing hard recent experiences by the light of an ancient play.

"We've got a lot of folks who are carrying an awful lot of baggage around," noted retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. T.S. Jones, who addressed the audience at the beginning and end of the event. "You can't be deployed six times and not have demons."

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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