Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Powerful and Moving Soldier's Heart
The setting of the play is a modest American house which is home to Casey Johnson, a young Marine sergeant and her ten-year-old-son, Sean. There are scenes and presences that occur in Casey's mind. Casey's home turns into a hellish nightmare terrain when we share her haunted recollections of her tour of duty in Iran.
The first scene of the play details Casey's last-minute preparations for her overseas tour of duty. She is instructing her mother Margie, who will be staying in the house while she is gone, on the care and feeding of Sean. Casey is a loving, deeply caring person who is a model of efficiency and attention to detail. We will never meet this Casey again.
Scene two. It is nine months later. Casey has returned home from Iraq a broken person. She is now tightly strung, angry, fearful, hallucinatory, and incapable of taking care of herself, let alone anyone else. Over the course of the balance of the play, we learn of both the sexual abuse that Casey has suffered at the hands of her commanding officer and the seemingly endemic collateral indignity and suffering that she endured as a female combat soldier. Furthermore, Ryan makes the case that the military career of a female soldier who brings rape charges against her attacker is doomed.
Adding to the scope and urgency of the play is the diversity of combat veterans (on stage and, in the case of Casey's late father, off) who suffer from a wide range of psychological and health issues whose problems are mishandled and/or dismissed by an often uncaring or incompetent Veteran's Administration. It is to Ryan's credit that all of these characters are germane to and enhance Casey's story.
Mairin Lee ably bridges the gap between the diverse personas of pre- and post-Iraq Casey. Lee accomplishes this by always allowing us to see the hurt that has so changed Casey. Kim Zimmer makes manifest the struggle of Margie, Casey's reformed alcoholic mother, to do right by her troubled daughter.
Benton Greene brings passion to the role of Kevin, Casey's troubled Marine veteran ex-husband and father of Kevin. Landon G. Woodson (S/Sgt. Williams) and Erica Camarano (Cpl. Hernandez) perform most ably as American soldiers in Cathy's unit in Iraq. These roles add layers of density and verisimilitude to Casey's experience in Iraq. Michael Colby Jones is convincing as Lt. Baines, Casey's commanding officer. By making Lt. Baines one dimensional (the only such character in her play), Ryan keeps the focus on the victims, where it belongs.
Director John Wooten's brisk and sensitive production maximizes the dramatic and emotional wallop of Ryan's text. Joseph Gourley's exemplary set, which with the aid of lighting designer Nadine Charlsen, makes nightmarish transformations, is a key element in this production's success.
My only reservation about Soldier's Heart is that it loses some momentum in its final scenes by appending a couple of anti-climactic scenes to resolve (or place on the road to resolution) all the issues facing Casey. Particularly, there is an unnecessary late appearance by Cpl. Hernandez to convey information which could have better and more efficiently been conveyed by Casey in another extant scene.
Soldier's Heart is a major step forward for author Tammy Ryan from Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods which was produced by Premiere Stages in 2010. Here, Ryan has done her homework and written a moving play with strongly defined, three-dimensional characters who are dealing with important societal and personal issues which are illuminated organically by the events which she depicts.
Soldier's Heart continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 3 pm) through July 27, 2014 at Premiere Stages' Zelda Fry Theatre on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, New Jersey, 07083; Box Office: 908-737-7469; online: www.kean.edu/premierestages.
Soldier's Heart by Tammy Ryan; directed by John Wooten