THEATER REVIEW

'ReEntry' finesses the appeals, hazards of a military lifestyle

VICTORY: Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and PJ Sosko portray a mother and Marine son at Center Stage.
VICTORY: Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and PJ Sosko portray a mother and Marine son at Center Stage.
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By Nelson Pressley
Monday, November 22, 2010

The bar is open in the cabaret-style Head Theater at Center Stage throughout the performance of "ReEntry," but don't expect it to be very busy. This interview-based play about the lives of Marine families - signing up, getting trained, dealing with battle, coping at home - keeps an iron grip on your attention for its 90 minutes, and during Wednesday's opening, pretty much everyone stayed glued to their seats.

Rattling as it can be, "ReEntry" is its own refreshment. The piece has been put together by co-authors Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez, veterans of the interview-driven troupe The Civilians, so they know how to convert raw documentary speech into vivid theater. Powered by five appealing actors plus smart projections and a bit of live video, the show is a cool, savvy entertainment.

Sanchez (who directs this with tremendous assurance and sensitivity) and Ackerman have another advantage: They both come from military families. They know the culture they are chronicling, and they listen with empathy and very sharp ears to career Marines, young goofballs, even borderline wackos for whom the military is a refuge from a "normal" society that can, from their side, seem a little nuts.

The show's fundamental fault line is - as the blunt, concerned CO says at the beginning - how to prepare "last year's high school seniors" for duty in a way that they can "come out on the other side whole." Exploring exactly how that might work, Ackerman and Sanchez hang a lot of their information around a single family: a mother, two Marine brothers and their sister at home. To call John, the older brother, gung-ho is an understatement, and little brother Charlie's adrenaline is always juiced. They address themselves directly to us - everyone does; it's the same technique favored by The Civilians - and the accumulating statements methodically explore the appeal and hazards of service, only gradually coming around to the problem of fitting back in.

"Why transition them into society?" asks a one-eyed veteran who feels at home only in the military. "Why would you make yourself a civilian?" These grim questions come an hour into the show, and by then you sense a jarring, maybe unbridgeable disconnect between the people who live the military life - family included - and those who don't. The voices give you plenty of painful war-is-hell stories, but they go well beyond, busting myths and touching the raw nerve of what can be so alienating on both sides of the service experience.

The actors are flat-out fabulous, never striking the false notes that could nudge things toward caricature. Joe Harrell, awesomely muscled, plays the CO as the kind of conscientious officer you'd hope a young soldier might land with. (Harrell has been a Marine, and he's credited as the show's military consultant.) PJ Sosko (John) and Bobby Moreno (Charlie) are as short-fused as Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris (the mother) and Sheila Tapia (the sister) are patient.

"Re-Entry" knows its subject too well to flinch, and it delivers a troubling picture of the people and systems on both sides. But Ackerman and Sanchez also love these guys; the evening seems to have several endings, and each one's a beaut.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

ReEntry by Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez. Directed by KJ Sanchez. Scenic and costume design, Marion Williams; lights, Russell H. Champa; sound design, Zachary Williamson; projection design, Alex Koch. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 19 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.


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