Powerful landing for 'ReEntry' at Center Stage

For 90 minutes in the intimate space of the Head Theater at Center Stage, audiences are being thrust uncomfortably into an issue that many Americans ignore or choose to forget, or deal with simply by displaying a "Support Our Troops" sticker.

Welcome to "ReEntry," a play by Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez, who drew the dialogue from interviews they conducted with Marines and their families. The result is a grittily, sometimes bitterly effective theatrical vehicle about our two long-lasting wars and those who come back from fighting them.

Given how little media time is spent on Iraq or Afghanistan, and how little stomach people have for seeing the grievously wounded, let alone flag-draped coffins, the play can deliver something of a shock to the system. Suddenly, you're face-to-face for 90 minutes with real servicemen and women, who give unvarnished answers to questions about what they've seen, what they've felt, how they're adjusting.

The only voices heard are those of the interviewed, yet a sense of an involving dialogue is subtly achieved. And the interwoven stories, often told in coarse language (hey, these are Marines, not monks), hold together quite well, with enough of an overall framework and a potent trajectory of images and emotions. The point here is not plot, but experience — theirs and ours.

A dozen or so characters are portrayed by a cast of five. This production, revised since the 2009 premiere at the Two River Theater Company in New Jersey, employs a smoothly matched cast of actors who have been associated with "ReEntry" from the start. Some military units would envy the precision of these performers; some theatrical troupes would envy their naturalness.

The stage direction by Sanchez keeps the pacing brisk, the mood informal. Only a few props are used on Marion Williams' spare set (she also designed the costumes), and only a few choreographed movements are made, invariably to telling effect. Video, music and some inevitable sounds of war are judiciously applied.

Giving "ReEntry" an extra degree of veracity and expressive weight is the presence of an actual veteran in the cast. Joe Harrell was in the Marine Corps from 1999 to 2008 and had his own post-traumatic stress disorder issues.

Harrell, who still has the physique and bearing of a model Marine, portrays a character designated the C.O., who delivers monologues that become increasingly candid and descriptive, confrontational and philosophical. At one point, recalling how he walked indifferently past a dying child, the character says: "I was not the person I thought I was."

With his careful but never studied manner, Harrell delivers such lines with a chilling honesty. It's the same, near the end of the play, when the C.O. talks about ancient warriors undergoing a purifying ritual after coming home from battles; he wishes someone "would wash my hands, wash away the blood."

That is not to imply that "ReEntry" should be titled "ReGret." These Marines don't apologize or attempt to rationalize anything. They were given a job and did it, often under impossible situations, as their calm descriptions of mines and body parts make plain.

"You gave everything you had, and you come home and you have to hear about the country having war fatigue," the C.O. says. "'Oh, you're fatigued, huh? Yeah, it was exhausting for you.'"

Such lines cut as sharply as any bayonet, and there are many like it. How differently the play might have turned out if there were a draft, or if taxes had been raised to pay for the wars, spreading the sacrifice around. As the C.O. puts it, "I wish we were a country at war, and not just a military at war." Another character drives that point home: "What can people actually do to support the troops? Quit bitchin'."

Woven through the play are two brothers, John and Charlie, who both did multiple tours of duty in Iraq; their recollections and opinions provide humor as well as pathos. Recurring appearances by their mother and sister become equally telling, especially when the subject turns to what happened when the men suffered flashbacks or did potentially harmful things in their postwar days.

Other vivid characters include the badly wounded Pete, who defies the experts and sleeps soundly at night; and his spouse, Maria, who reveals the "secret all Marine wives keep" — when she needs to, she goes into the bathroom, lets it all out, then fixes her makeup and resumes life.

PJ Sosko offers gruff power as John, a persuasive calmness as Pete. Bobby Moreno gets the "like, whatever" style of Charlie across terrifically. Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris handles the roles of Mom, Maria and others in generally persuasive fashion. She makes the most of a particularly poignant passage where Mom describes an incident involving John, that "big, bad Marine," when he used to work at a funeral home.

Sheila Tapia does vivid work as Liz, the brothers' sibling who knows they might get hurt over there but wonders, "if something happens here, whose fault is that?"

"ReEntry" has no answer, but it will keep you thinking about the question for a long time.

tim. smith @baltsun.com


If you go

"ReEntry" runs through Dec. 19 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.

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