Sometimes a play comes along that changes the landscape. By putting the ordinary soldier’s voice on stage, the National Theater of Scotland’s 2006 production of Gregory Burke’s “Black Watch” shifted the liberal consensus on Iraq, showing it was possible to be anti-war and pro-soldier. Students at Philadelphia’s Temple U. come to much the same conclusion in their adaptation of Yvonne Latty’s 2006 interview anthology, “In Conflict: Iraq War Veterans Speak Out on Duty, Loss and the Fight to Stay Alive.” The verbatim theater staging is absorbing and humane, performed with a confidence beyond the actors’ years, but it lacks the dramatic power that made “Black Watch” a revelation.
“In Conflict” preemed at Philadelphia’s Randall Theater in 2007 and enjoyed a run at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn. It heads next to Gotham’s Barrow Street Theater to launch Culture Project’s 2008-09 season after winning a Fringe First award in Edinburgh. Clearly, the play has many fans, leaving no doubt about the hold the veterans’ stories have when presented in such a direct way. The popularity of verbatim theater shows no sign of abating, generating a special kind of energy when ordinary people tell extraordinary stories in their own words.
The Temple Theaters’ actors are close in age to the young American men and women they portray, most of whom served in Iraq for five-month stretches between 2002 and 2005. The young soldiers are introduced with sections of conversation explaining why they signed up — they cite a mixture of reasons from escaping a life in the projects to needing the money for college.
It’s easy to imagine the actors themselves going to war and suffering the same set of consequences as the soldiers they portray — from amputated legs to post-traumatic depression — a connection which lends the production its immediacy.
Helmer Douglas C. Wager intersperses first-hand monologues with pre-recorded video footage of author Latty setting the scene for her interviews. He also choreographs a number of brisk military tableaux involving the whole ensemble. “Bomb the village, kill the people,” the actors chant in a display of military bravado, a grim contrast to the quiet post-conflict reflections of the injured soldiers that follow.
We hear stories of a land-mine exploding under foot, a grenade detonating in a Marine’s hand, and an aircraft shot down.
Such tales of perseverance are impressive, but it’s often the simple details of military life that strike home — soldiers using their helmets as wash basins, driving through enemy territory or seeing an innocent woman shot. Such routine experiences leave mental scars at odds with the gung-ho image we tend to have of the army.
But “In Conflict” is not a pacifist polemic. It contains many skeptical voices — “I felt we were in there for the wrong reasons,” says one army chaplain, while another talks of going to die for “weapons that weren’t there” — but there’s also a residual patriotism and an insistence, from one National Guard major, that “it was very fulfilling.”
The message is that, whatever the political failings of the country, it’s unfair to blame the soldiers simply for doing their jobs.
All this is persuasively done in Wager’s uncomplicated staging. What the show lacks is a broader dramatic arc that would transform this long series of personal testimonies into something with cumulative power.