Liz Lerman's 'Healing Wars' provides unique theatrical experience at Arena Stage

It has been said that the United States has never really stopped fighting its Civil War. A glance at any current news source will suggest that we may never be finished with the post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, either.

All of which makes "Healing Wars," the thoroughly original theatrical work conceived and directed by Liz Lerman, all the more timely and important.


Commissioned by George Washington University and given its premiere by Arena Stage, this engrossing fusion of drama and dance (some music, too), is a part of the multi-city, multi-institution, multi-year National Civil War Project.

The Baltimore-based Lerman, a widely admired, innovative choreographer who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, has a particular interest in the medical side of the Civil War and the role women played on (in male disguise) and near the battlefield. These topics are deftly woven together into "Healing Wars," providing a fresh, unblinking look at two different centuries of our shared history.


The new piece is very much a collaborative venture. Keith A. Thompson, a veteran of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, worked with Lerman on the alternately athletic and poetic choreography. Actor Bill Pullman, whose film career includes "Independence Day," helped Lerman gather source material that, with additional help from all the performers, generated the fascinating text.

If there are a few moments when the production feels as if too many hands were involved, the overall effect is remarkably cohesive and consistently engrossing.

Lerman takes the audience to places few of us are comfortable being, a place where injury or death is ever-present, but she makes the journey feel necessary, vital and, in some strange way, uplifting. There really turns out to be a touch of "healing" here, a reminder that, no matter how often we fall and suffer, we are all joined together in some fundamental way.

The work starts backstage, where the audience is allowed to wander a half-hour or so before curtain.

In moodily lit corners and crannies, mere inches away from spectators, vignettes with silent actors unfold, as if caught in some time-warp loop -- an anxious Clara Barton, trying to write a letter; a soldier antsy to leave for battle; an edgy woman and the male soldier's uniform she will don; a burial detail; a seer.

Onstage, behind a gauzy curtain onstage, two men, one an amputee veteran, talk about the Iraq War, injuries and adjustments while a film of their encounter rolls on a screen.

All of this takes place as people find their way to their seats. If you are sitting near enough to the stage, you can hear the vet frankly describe such things as how medics cleaned sand particles out of his wounded, later amputated leg and how he deals with the daily pain.

It's a pretty unsettling way to be drawn into theater, but it sure is powerful. When "Healing Wars" begins in earnest, that vet -- Paul Hurley, who served in the Navy as a gunners mate -- remains very much a part of the production. This is nowhere more touchingly underscored than when he removes his artificial limb and performs a kind of pas de deux with Thompson.


Everyone here, whether experienced in the genre or not, takes part at some point in the dancing, which emerges with an organic, inevitable quality.

Weekend Watch

Weekend Watch


Plan your weekend with our picks for the best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV shows and more. Delivered every Thursday.

There are nine performers, portraying multiple roles. Pullman does finely nuanced work, especially as a contemporary military doctor who tries to give an upbeat talk back home about his experiences treating an I.E.D. victim. He also knows just how to dispense the occasional and welcome humor along the way.

The actor's wife, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, connects just as strongly to the material; her richly expressive face speaks eloquently.

It is difficult to describe exactly how "Healing Wars" functions, how deftly it delivers a diverse assortment of historical anecdotes and turns physical movement into an extension of each subject under discussion.

Whether describing how a Union line of relatives and neighbors from the same town was decimated in a single charge, or how a soldier didn't make it back from Iraq ("What are the meds for that?"), everything is brought down to a personal level.

David Israel Reynoso's spare scenery and spot-on costumes, subtly lit by Heidi Eckwall, and Darron L. West's sound design also ensure a direct connection between stage and house.


Lerman has created something brilliant and incisive here, something that should be seen and felt.

Performances continue through Sunday at Arena Stage.