Healing Wars, now in the Kogod Cradle at Washington's Arena Stage, is a visionary work that sounds unlikely at best: an examination of the damage war brings to individuals and communities, conveyed largely through dance and other movement. Choreographer and creator Liz Lerman and her cast enact dreamlike scenes, intermingled with moments of vivid clarity, until the 80-minute work immerses the audience.
Lerman began by researching Civil War medicine and some tangents, such as the role of women who dressed as men and joined the battle. As she looked deeper, she realized that the challenges have not changed much in the past 150 years, even as medicine has progressed. Healing Wars is the result.
The two anchors of the production are stage and film actor Bill Pullman and Paul Hurley, a graduate of Washington's Duke Ellington School for the Arts who lost his leg while serving with the U.S. Navy in Bahrain. Pullman's gravitas comes through as he describes how relatives and neighbors served together in Civil War companiesand the effect of catastrophic battle losses on their home communitiesand explains that ether and nitrous oxide were used as recreational drugs long before wartime surgeons realized their potential as anesthetics. Hurley wears shorts that reveal his high-tech prosthetic leg, recounting his experiences in words and movement.
Other notable performances come from Samantha Speis as an embodiment of the spirit of death, visiting seriously wounded soldiers on the battlefield; Tamara Hurwitz Pullman as Clara Barton, fighting to save lives and, later, to help locate missing soldiers; and Alli Ross as a woman fighting undetected beside the men. The scenes are evanescent, bodies in constant movement as they contort, strain, yearn for the release of death or, conversely, the comfort of caring people around them.
The interaction between audience members and actors begins before the performance starts. Audiences enter the theater through the backstage area, where they can experience close-up tableaux of coping, mourning and survival. David Israel Reynoso designed the non-realistic set, brought to life by Kate Freer's projections and Darron L. West's enveloping sound design.