(First published on Red Bank oRBit January 29, 2009)
When you think about it, some of the most compelling “war stories” take place in large part far away from the field of battle. The Best Years of Our Lives, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter — all derive their power from the challenges faced by the battle-tested soldier, forced to navigate the uncertain no-man’s-land between the culture of war and the resumption of old ways.
For ReEntry, an original work for the stage now featured at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, director KJ Sanchez and her writing partner Emily Ackerman conducted hundreds of hours of interviews — conversations with men and women who served as Marines in Iraq, as well members of their families and commanding officers — and used their actual words to tell a story of people doing whatever they can to adjust to a life that no longer seems like their own, and of their families who try to be there for them without necessarily having a clue as to what they’re going through.
It’s a story that’s punctuated with loud music and screen projections, peppered with f-bombs and presented sans intermission inside Two River’s “black box” performance space, where the production — the first dramatic work commissioned by and created for the Two River Theater Company — re-deploys for another 22 performances before wrapping up its tour of duty on February 15.
If you happen to be a veteran of the U.S. armed forces, there’s a free ticket with your name on it at the box office, courtesy of a Military Ticket Fund that’s underwritten by Meridian Health and Linda and Paul Gaffney (President of Monmouth University and retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral). Read on for more details.
While ReEntry is made up of a variety of voices and viewpoints, the focus throughout is on one particular family — brothers Charlie (Bobby Moreno) and John (PJ Sosko), each of whom has returned from Iraq with scars either visible or otherwise; Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris plays their mom and Sheila Tapia their supportive sister Liz.
Touching as it does on physical injury and post traumatic stress disorder; unconditional love and unwavering commitment, the central storyline provides real structure and genuine heart to what otherwise might have been a powerful but shapeless series of monologues.
The actors each offer up some additional portraits, such as “Tommy,” a brash young Marine dedicated to being there for his injured buddy, and “Lisa,” a female convoy leader whose matter-of-fact pride in her work is infectious. An unexpectedly poignant interlude features Sosko as “Pete,” a career soldier whose injuries require him to step into a civilian life he’s never really experienced.
Director Sanchez has secured herself a secret weapon in this cast — Joseph Harrell, a former Marine drill instructor himself, and an actor who brings an authenticity to the role of the CO that dispenses with R. Lee Ermey cartoonishness in favor of a clear-eyed authority that instantly grounds this slightly stylized project in the land of the living. It was Harrell who put his fellow actors through private “boot camp” training in preparation for the production, and Harrell who commands attention in his delivery of a memorable briefing for parents of recruits who are about to be deployed to a dangerous place as trained killers.
Missing in action here is any sense of blame-game politics, or of any overtly preachy point of view. These people, Corps to the core, are neither victims or villains; neither wavers of flags nor whackers of Bush. They have their bad days — in some casesreally bad days — but they have each other’s backs, and they present a sense that they, and us, are going to come through this thing all right.