Sean Huze traded life as an aspiring playwright and actor for a Marine's duty the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He eventually went to Iraq, where he discovered that war is indeed hell.
Now back in civilian life, Huze has turned his newfound insights into "The Sandstorm: Stories from the Front," a slickly produced series of monologues that manage to be engaging even though it offers little that is new or illuminating. The production is now having its East Coast premiere at Alexandria's MetroStage.
Huze has bitterly turned against the Iraq war but avoids both politics and policy here, focusing not on the messy big picture but on close-ups. Colorful vignettes from his service in a light, armored reconnaissance battalion are filtered through 10 fictionalized Marines and a Navy medical corpsman. They describe their war, not the war of politicians or generals or armchair pundits, relating both the mundane and the atrocious with seemingly equal weight. It is well-trodden ground, with Huze following in substantial footsteps, including those of Stephen Crane and his Civil War tale "The Red Badge of Courage," and those of Norman Mailer and "The Naked and the Dead," which is about World War II.
What is new is that this is amorphous modern warfare, often fought in urban settings rather than on battlefields, against enemies without uniforms who are able to inflict damage and melt away into crowds. Innocent life is frequently wasted in this morass, chalked up as "collateral damage," and Huze's characters painfully exhibit the heavy toll exacted on these ordinary Americans. But the men do not dwell on why they are in Iraq; they concentrate on immediate concerns such as staying alive and the commonplace irritants of military life.
As an audience member, you will likely carry with you to the theater your feelings about the war and the president who is so identified with it. If you oppose the war on practical or moral grounds, you may not be able to separate the war from the warriors. In that case, the look you get at Cpl. Tracy Waters, in Kevin Robinson's vivid portrayal, will confirm your worst fears about the U.S. invasion and what it is doing to America's soul. Waters describes how he enjoyed tormenting and then watching an Iraqi, his body torn apart, die in the dirt while Waters casually had a meal. This is a guy who will soon be back among us as a civilian. As a war supporter, well, you will just have to go with the "all war is hell" concept.
Directed by Brett Smock, the cast moves quickly and economically through 70 minutes of storytelling held together with well-acted but slightly intrusive appearances by Darius A. Suziedelis as a Rod Serling-in-camouflage narrator. The performances are generally spellbinding and realistic. Benjamin Fernebok is quietly forceful as Lance Cpl. Casey Dodd, coping with the death of children, while Joey Collett's Pfc. Weems negotiates his way through a difficult scene, perfectly blending black humor and puzzlement over his own behavior while recounting an attempt to match a detached foot with the right Iraqi body. Poignant but chilling is Michael Kevin Darnall's Cpl. Marcus Rodriguez, suffering the loss of a friend while concluding that "killing is power."
The actors glide over Huze's occasionally florid language. It's doubtful any battle-hardened soldier other than a playwright would mutter, "My boots were covered with blood and sand, mixed to a gruesome paste," or "The tender moments can hurt you worse than a bullet, sometimes." This play likely won't outlast the war it highlights (although even that could guarantee it a long life). But this is a skillful production, proving that good theater is often found in hell.
"The Sandstorm: Stories From the Front" continues through Sept. 25 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are available at 800-494-8497 or at www.boxofficetickets.com. Uniformed military personnel are admitted free.