"Ripped from the headlines" might sound like a cliché, but the phrase applies very well to Soldier's Heart, now making its New Jersey premiere as the first play in Premiere Stage's tenth anniversary season. On the heels of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's failed attempt to get Congress to overhaul the procedure for dealing with sexual assault in the military, Tammy Ryan has written an intense drama that grabs you from the first scene and doesn't let go until the lights go down two hours later.
When we first meet Marine Sgt. Casey Johnson, she is a super-organized, caring mother about to deploy on a nine-month tour of duty in Iraq. Before she leaves, she has prepared for any eventuality her mother Margie might encounter taking care of her son Sean, even going so far as to compile a notebook filled with telephone numbers, forms completed and ready to be filed on certain dates, and warnings about the effect of her mother's smoking on Sean's asthma. She has, apparently, prepared for anything that could possibly occur while she is away.
But when she returns from Iraq, she's more Hyde than Jekyll: paranoid, jittery, belligerent, even suicidal. She doesn't want to see Sean and even tries to give up custody. The reason, she finally admits to Kevin, Sean's father, is that she was raped but was unable to report it because her rapist is 1st Lt. Baines, her commanding officer. Such an accusation would be dismissed because there were no witnesses, he outranks her, and women in the military are considered "walking mattresses," sluts, there for the taking. And, should she charge Baines with rape, her military career would end, a blow to a young woman from a military family. The conundrum: she obviously needs psychological help, but won't go to the Veterans Administration because they take too long to honor appointments and, anyway, she will have to fill out long forms and write a narrative that probably no one will believe. (Above, L-R: Landon G. Woodson, Michael Colby Jones, Mairin Lee, Erica Camarano)
Playwright Ryan presents the back-story of the rape through flashbacks that show just how Baines "courted" Casey and then abused her. We also learn about her habit of making her own decisions instead of always following orders and mistakes she's made that resulted in the death of a Marine under her command.
This gripping narrative is tautly directed by John Wooten, who ratchets up the tension incrementally until it finally explodes. He has cast a group of very talented actors to tell the tale. As Casey, Mairin Lee carries the weight of the drama; she's onstage in every scene, and we cannot take our eyes off her. She's tough yet vulnerable, vulnerable yet tough. She is a veritable walking powder keg. Her loving mother is played by Kim Zimmer (left), who appeared in Ryan's previous play produced at Premiere Stages, Lost Boy at Whole Foods. Zimmer's Margie is concerned about her child and at a loss to help her. Her mothering style stands in stark contrast to Casey's before and after her tour of Iraq. Benton Greene, as Sean's father Kevin, is a veritable rock in this seething atmosphere of fear. He is a character to be admired, and Greene certainly conveys that.
The villain of the piece is 1st Lt. Baines, played with appropriate smarminess and malevolence by Michael Colby Jones (right, with Mairin Lee). He goes out of his way to make Casey his “bitch,” giving her a phone to call home for free, offering to protect her against those in the company who find her off-putting. One of those is Lance Cpl. Hernandez, played by Erica Camarano, the only other woman in the company. She doesn't (and cannot) befriend Casey and even spreads salacious rumors about her, which is reprehensible and something Baines uses to his benefit.
Landon G. Woodson is tough as Staff Sgt.Williams. Azlan Landry (left, with Lee) is heartbreaking as Sean; when he finally appears, we feel this 10-year-old's pain at what he sees as abandonment by his mother ("You missed all of fourth grade," he cries). Zane King Beers is the silent Iraqi boy who haunts Casey's dreams.
Joseph Gourley has designed a set that works on several levels, in this case, Casey's home and Iraq. Nadine Charlsen's atmospheric lighting takes us into Casey's tortured mind, and Janie Bullard has chosen music that, with its driving beat and rap lyrics, reinforces the Marine motto of "Semper Fi" and highlights the turmoil faced by young soldiers in a faraway place.
Once again, Tammy Ryan and Premiere Stages have given us a play with topical significance and much to think about. Albeit a tad overwritten and somewhat repetitive, Soldier's Heart certainly gets across the point that we are failing our females in the military and that military justice needs an overhaul when it comes to prosecuting crimes committed by soldiers against soldiers. Although Ryan has set this play in the context of the Marines, the problem exists in all branches of the service. Best of all, she has given the audience a story with a strong dramatic arc, acted by a very talented company, on an important subject with which we must deal decisively, now
Soldier's Heart will be performed at the Zella Fry Theatre on the Kean University campus in Union through July 27. For information and tickets, call 908.737.SHOW (7469) or visit www.kean.edu/premierestages.
Photos by Mike Peters.