War, Ambrose Bierce once declared, is God's way of teaching Americans geography. In "The Sand Storm: Stories From the Front," former Marine Sean Huze's earnest piece of reportage with theatrical aspirations, the geography is less the violence-racked Middle East than the treacherous reaches of the human psyche.
In 10 monologues over the course of 70 minutes, Huze's servicemen relate disturbing anecdotes set during the current Iraq conflict: tales of ambushes, massacres and freelance acts of brutality, with explicit descriptions of smoldering flesh and melting tires and body parts. But the narratives' shock value draws less on the gory detail than on the insight of the characters: With a certain predictability, each harrowing event leads the GI to acknowledge the limits of his compassion -- and the lengths of his callousness. "There's a code about war stories," the MC-like Marine (Darius A. Suziedelis) remarks at the start of the play. ". . . If you make it home . . . keep it to yourself." "The Sand Storm" aims to disregard that code and testify to the spiritual devastation that war inflicts.
As articles in several major papers have reported, Huze enlisted in the Marine Corps in the aftermath of 9/11 and served in Iraq. His drastic disillusionment prompted him to write "The Sand Storm," which has been staged in Los Angeles. It's no surprise, then, that his writing percolates with military lingo and that the stories exhibit a wrenching specificity that smacks of first-person experience. Some images and turns of phrase can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, as when 19-year-old Pfc. Kyle Weems (Joey Collett), recalling "another [expletive] town we shot up," quips, "I swear it's like clubbing baby seals or something."
Unfortunately the power of the work is somewhat undermined by the baldness of the presentation, as Huze prods the characters into the spotlight to update the age-old truth that War Is Hell. The figure of the knowing Marine, who sometimes loiters portentously onstage to supply a little commentary, doesn't help matters. The dramaturgy grows even more heavy-handed at the end of the play, when a montage of voices reprises certain crucial lines, in case the audience missed the significance the first time round.
Further handicapping Huze's good intentions, not all of the actors are able to ground the monologues in a convincing personality, so as to make them seem less jerry-built. Michael Kevin Darnall is terrific as Cpl. Marcus Rodriguez: His laid-back, street-savvy manner, almost flip, emphasizes the pathos of his words by throwing their somberness into relief.
And Kevin Robinson gives chilling nonchalance to Cpl. Tracy Waters, who gloats over a dying man's pain ("I kicked him in his side and climbed back on my LAV to finish my chow"). But some of the other performers don't really seem to be reliving the trauma they so vividly describe.
Director Brett Smock channels the production starkly, introducing the servicemen in a particularly effective light-and-shadows tableau right at the start (lighting is by Matthew J. Fick). He gets valuable assistance overall from sound designer Matt Rowe, who has crafted an eerie fugue of noises -- explosions, the drone of aircraft, the calls of muezzins. And Jen Price's set is ingeniously disturbing: a slanted stage with skewed benches and a backdrop that looks like yards of bunched-up tent canvas.
But the aesthetic touches don't gussy up the bleakness of the message: In the brooding words of Cpl. Rodriguez, "Maybe some of us are walking dead, soulless shells of the men we once were." You can't get much more blunt than that.
The Sand Storm: Stories From the Front, by Sean Huze. Directed by Brett Smock. Costumes by Debra Kim Sivigny. Approximately 70 minutes. At MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com or www.metrostage.org. Uniformed military personnel admitted free.
Kevin Robinson, left, Darius A. Suziedelis, Joey Collett and Benjamin Fernebok give voice to former Marine Sean Huze's chilling anecdotes of war.