Bekah Brunstetter has no trouble securing international commissions, grants, awards, readings, residencies and publication of her plays. What she hadn’t been able to bring off — in this town, anyway — is a finished professional production, a situation rectified by this slick showcase of “Oohrah!” helmed by Evan Cabnet for the Atlantic Theater Company. The young scribe’s talent and potential are obvious in this Southern-basted dramatic comedy about the war mystique as it plays out on the American home front; but so, too, is her struggle to manage the tricky theatrical style in which she’s chosen to work.
Like Beth Henley, the Southern regionalist whose darkly humorous style is most similar to own, Brunstetter opens her play in a flood of comic sunshine. (Credit the reliable Tyler Micoleau for shedding light on the scene of a cheery kitchen in the military town of Fayetteville, N.C.)
Sara (Jennifer Mudge), the perky Army wife whose domain this is, bakes cookies and wraps packages for the boys overseas, including hubby Ron (Darren Goldstein), on his second tour of duty in Iraq. The middle-class domestic life she aspires to doesn’t come easy for Sara, whose occasional lapses into a low-class accent and frequent expressions of self-doubt (“Are we poor white trash?”) give the game away.
But good-natured Sara is determined to get it right, this Army wife thing, and there’s something sweet, as well as stupid, about her bad-taste choices in everything from home decor to a disastrous “coming out” party for her tomboy daughter, Lacey (in a savvy perf from young Sami Gayle), whose one ambition is to join the Marines. There’s also something solid about Sara’s love for her husband, a fine specimen of masculinity that has sister Abby (Cassie Beck) regretting her engagement to dorky Chris (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and pining for her very own soldier boy.
Brunstetter’s affectionate portrayal of the sisters holds up, even as she heaps on the comic absurdities of their romantic notions about men in uniforms, not to mention their absolute ignorance about the realities of war itself. But once the men take centerstage, asserting their realistic characters and unfunny psychic tics, the women look like idiots for clinging to their fantasies in the face of so much honest-to-god pain.
When Henley writes about Southern idiocy that turns into tragedy, she does it the way a lighting designer takes a scene from dawn to dusk — by incrementally shifting the comic tone, subtly shading the characters until their initial lightness is swallowed up by darkness. Brunstetter tries to do it by writing two plays at once — the funny one about the silly sisters and the sad one about the men they are driving nuts.
Ron is a realistic character from the minute he comes home from Iraq with down-to-earth expectations about his future, and Goldstein plays him with exactly the right measure of self-discipline and self-doubt. Chip (Maximilian Osinski), the gung-ho Marine-in-training whom Abby picks up on his flight home from boot camp, is a bit weird, but not in any comic sense. Over the course of the play, both men reveal enough of themselves to make us feel we’ve seen some growth, if not action. But the sisters don’t change at all, except to become more manic — and more annoying — about their fixations.
As the play tries to straddle both styles, the comedy loses its amiability and the tragedy never materializes. Brunstetter may think she’s writing in some new theatrical form, but what she’s really doing is consigning her play to dramatic limbo.