The poignant essence of Liz Lerman’s world-premiere dance-theater piece, “Healing Wars,” reveals itself on a simple wood-and-steel bench in Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle, where a performer in street clothes, Paul Hurley, parks himself and proceeds to remove his artificial right leg.
As a light piano underscoring is heard, the leg, a remarkable-looking piece of engineering, is placed gently under the bench. Soon dancer Keith A. Thompson — a ghost from the Civil War, perhaps — joins the seated Hurley and together, the representatives of two ghastly wars more than a century apart sway in unison, until Hurley pulls off the touching feat of hoisting Thompson onto his shoulders in one effortless motion.
The sequence occurs near the end of a 75-minute work that is not uniformly of this caliber of emotional or narrative clarity, an indication that “Healing Wars” is still struggling to achieve the kind of cohesiveness that would optimally frame its most powerful moments. Too often, spoken portions of the work drain the energy of, rather than give definition to, the dance and movement occurring around them. As a result, the evening oscillates between periods of lyrical beauty and patches of obtuse dryness.
Still, Lerman — the highly regarded founder of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange who is sidestepping here, as she occasionally does, into the theater world — is a smart and seasoned director-choreographer. So a hybrid project such as “Healing Wars,” tackling a subject as charged as how we minister to wounded warriors’ bodies and souls, is worth a look — especially for those who do not require theater to be too literal-minded or linear. It also may appeal to fans of film and stage actor Bill Pullman, who appears in “Healing Wars” with his wife, the choreographer Tamara Hurwitz Pullman.
In spite of the narrative hiccups, I found enough to intrigue me, especially any time that Hurley was showcased. A retired young U.S. Navy gunner’s mate who, according to the program, was injured while serving in Bahrain, Hurley is integrated into Lerman’s eight-person cast in ways that honor rather than sensationalize his sacrifice. (He is also a 2004 graduate of the District’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts.) Just standing still in the twilight conjured by lighting designer Heidi Eckwall, he makes a forceful statement. And when flanked by dancers creating the mere illusion of war’s toll, Hurley manages, in his compelling efforts to duplicate their exertions, to achieve a profound kind of gracefulness.
“Healing Wars,” inspired by the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, is an impressionistic survey of the constants in combat between that war and the Iraq war. The show begins backstage, a half-hour before curtain, when playgoers are invited to view the actors in a gallery of living portraits. Hurwitz Pullman, portraying Clara Barton, the Civil War nurse and founder of the Red Cross, is the focus of one of these exhibits; another, titled “A Young Man Anticipating Leaving,” features George Hirsch performing idiosyncratic ritualized movement, while on the stage, Pullman engages Hurley in a pre-show discussion of his injuries.
These mini-performance pieces establish the fragmentary, helter-skelter pattern of “Healing Wars,” which unfolds as a series of vignettes corresponding to projected titles such as “The Brain” and “Surgery” and “Remains.” (Still photos and film footage are projected onto David Israel Reynoso’s stark set, which has retractable curtains.) At times, the fragments are fairly concrete, as in Pullman’s portrayal of a Navy surgeon recalling at a fundraiser to benefit soldiers the case of a patient he treated in Fallujah. Pullman’s character, now only thinly realized, might be further developed to create a stronger spine for the production.
At others times, the interludes steer toward pretentiousness, as when Pullman falls into odd colloquy with a spirit (Samantha Speis) who guides the dying to the other side.
Lerman’s efforts at linking these episodes through dreamlike choreography — dancers’ emphatic leaps and languid poses and muscular contortions — are at times lovely: a tangle of bodies draped over the bench has the look for a few seconds of a melted version of the memorial to Iwo Jima. The jerky rhythms of the Lady Gaga hit “Telephone,” meanwhile, give Lerman and Thompson, her co-choreographer, an opportunity for a short up-tempo break from the evening’s solemnity.
Sometimes, too, events totally out of a theater’s control serve as an unexpected boost to a production’s urgency. In this case, as you watch the cast catalogue in words and movement the damage inflicted on battlefields, thoughts intrude of the controversy raging over the quality of attention that veterans are receiving in VA hospitals. In fits and starts, “Healing Wars” applies some mournful artistry to the public discourse.
Conceived and directed by Liz Lerman. Choreography by Lerman, Keith A. Thompson and the cast. Original text curated by Lerman and Bill Pullman. Sets and costumes, David Israel Reynoso; lighting, Heidi Eckwall; sound, Darron L. West; media design, Kate Freer. With George Hirsch, Ted Johnson, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, Alli Ross, Samantha Speis. About 75 minutes. $50-$119. Through June 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.