Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

She Went to War
The Guthrie Theater
Review by Kit Bix | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin, Goodbye Cruel World, and Six Degrees of Separation

Racheal Robinson, Jenn Calaway, and Tabitha Nichols
Photo by Dragons Eye (Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli)
Most theater is about generating illusions; She Went to War is about communicating actual, lived experiences in the most direct way possible. The Telling Project (founded in 2008 by Jonathan Wei) has produced over 40 original productions, performed in 16 states, putting 180 veterans and family members onstage. The process involves interviewing active service members and veterans about their experience in the military, and then shaping their testimony into theater. The soldiers and veterans then undertake a four to eight week course in performance. The creators arrange with theaters around the country to stage productions designed to nurture understanding between soldiers and veterans and local communities. Whether you call it "documentary theater," "testimonial theater," or "theater verite," this style of theater—and this play in particular—is incredibly powerful.

She Goes to War takes the testimony and reflections of four remarkable women who serve or have served in the U.S. military. The sheer potency and immediacy of this style of performance is astounding and I came away thinking that there are some stories that should or must be told in this way if they are not to sacrifice their truth and magnitude. She Went to War is not only a superb and deeply compelling piece of theater. It has great impact.

The stories they tell are interesting for all sorts of reasons, but particularly for what they reveal about coping strategies and the emotional experience of serving in combat situations. Tabitha Nichols joined the National Guard at 17. On her third day after being deployed to Iraq in 2005, she was seriously injured in a mortar attack. For weeks, she was in such extraordinary pain that she could only lie on her back in a tent. And then one day, after it became apparent that the pain would never go away, she made up her mind that she was going to stand up and resume her duties, regardless. Altogether, she served eight years before discharging. In the talk-back that followed the show, Nichols told us that 70% of her body remains disabled to this day.

One of the things that makes Nichols' testimony so compelling is that she does not try to connect the dots for us. In her monologues, as in the talk-back, it becomes clear that Nichols herself has at least as many questions as answers. The same could be said of Sergeant Jenn Calaway, who enlisted in the Marines as a Public Affairs Specialist. Deployed to Afghanistan, she was assigned to write news stories for the Armed Services, but since she was reporting directly from the battlefield, she was often engaged in combat situations herself. Like Nichols, Calaway does not interpret so much as unburden her memories and bear witness. One of the hardest stories to hear is her account of the catastrophic outcome of a Marine training session for Iraqi soldiers.

Part of what creates this play's intensity is the mode of the narration and the focused and restrained style of storytelling the performers employ. All four women steer clear of nostalgia and sensationalism, and strive to convey the full complexity of their experiences. And because no one is trying to push an agenda, we are able to listen without judgment, and connect deeply with their stories—and with the women themselves.

It bothered at least one person in the post-show discussion that the monologues do not touch on the justice or injustice of these (Iraq and Afghanistan) wars. It is not that these women do not have opinions about these wars. This play, though, is not really about war. It is about the experience of serving, and the omission of a moral judgment underscores an often misunderstood aspect of military service: the (qualified) ceding of authority. Yes, soldiers have the authority—and, at least since the Nuremberg and My Lai trials, the duty—to refuse to execute an order to commit atrocities. But that does not mean that they have a say in determining policy, a fact that is still too often neglected when civilians mistake soldiers for free agents.

She Went to War made me painfully aware of the extent to which my ideas about soldiers and military life are dominated by simplistic (and often extremely masculinized) stereotypes drawn from popular culture. But what struck me most sharply was realizing just how little thought many of us devote to the individuals who make up our armed services. This play awakens us to the depth and complexity of the lives of those who serve.

She Went to War by Max Rayneard and Jonathan Wei. Performed through April 2, 2017, at The Guthrie Theater, Dowling Studio, 818 S 2nd St, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 612.377.2224 or toll-free at 1.877.44STAGE.

Directed by Max Rayneard and Jonathan Wei.

Featuring Jenn Calaway, Gretchen G. Evans, Tabitha Nichols, Racheal Robinson
Lighting Designers Stacey Shade-Ware and Ryan Connealy
Original Music Jonathan Wei
Stage Manager Jane Heer

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