Playwright-director Cassius Allen Shuman is a man with a message, and he lets us know immediately, through an opening voiceover, how enraged he is at the day-to-day horrors of soldiers dying in agony. Shuman’s point — that actual, bloody details of battle are downplayed, obliterated by heated rhetoric, politics and patriotic fervor — crashes through several chilling scenes. Shuman’s emotional connection to the material is enough to shake up theatergoers, even when the second act loses power through proselytizing, cliches and sentimental resolutions.
The action centers on President Doyle (Henry LeBlanc), a superficial, skirt-chasing figurehead with a weakness for one-liners. Suddenly this limited, mediocre politician is asked for his approval to wage war against a Muslim rebel leader. He clearly leans toward the gung-ho approach advocated by General Rader (Kim Estes), although National Security Adviser Diane (Kristin Carey) urges peace and caution.
Doyle is made to seem so lightweight and lacking in stature that it takes time to push past our skeptical rejection of him as a world leader. Carey’s national security adviser comes across by contrast as brilliant, wise and compassionate; it’s hard not to think she should be in the president’s chair.
This lack of balance upsets early, polemical encounters until Eddie (Dean Purvis), the ghost of Doyle’s brother, shows up to admonish the president about his hawkish stance. Eddie takes President Doyle back to Vietnam, exposing him to screams of pain, forcing him to witness the panic and death of Pvt. Miller (David Hoffman).
The combination of Miller’s terror, Matthew C. Drake’s lighting design and the startling sound of gunfire and bombs provided by Bill Jurney join in a jolting sequence that flings us into the ugly insanity of combat.
Paradoxically, the deceased Eddie carries a greater sense of reality than any of the show’s living characters, due to first-rate writing and Purvis’ riveting, red-hot portrayal. Though burdened with purple, preachy passages, Purvis steps beyond his role as one destroyed man and speaks for millions of wartime victims and their families.
Since Purvis’ Eddie is the true hero of “The War Room,” we have less emotional stake in the story when he disappears and President Doyle undergoes the inevitable change of heart. “You look larger than life … deeper,” observes Diane. “It’s your time to shine.” Trouble is, this metamorphosis is presented in simplistic, black-and-white terms, as though major political issues can be easily resolved through love and understanding.
Eddie’s widow, Mary Jo (Kathrin Lautner), and her daughter-in-law Susan (Amy Christine) arrive at the White House and ask Doyle to pull strings so Susan’s husband, Charlie, can be released from service to raise his son. When the president understandably pauses to ponder this request, Susan goes berserk and berates him as a monster — a politician rather than a human being. Her hysterical behavior is supposed to help encourage his growing integrity, but it only provokes viewer impatience.
Lautner (who has guested on “The West Wing”) is a lovely, graceful actress who does wonders with a scene in which Mary Jo tells Doyle to overcome his guilt about Eddie’s death, looking tenderly on while he utters such sugary lines as, “I never had a chance to say goodbye.”
Sasha Rovin offers an amusing Monica Lewinsky-type sketch at the beginning, although her late reappearance is cartoonish and compromises the strength of the drama. John Cato engagingly depicts a peace-loving public relations expert, afraid to offer his opinion of war for fear of losing his job.
The best of the presidential advisers is Frank Ashmore, who avoids stereotypical bad-guy status by playing a military man as someone who truly believes war is the only answer.