After gathering testimony from U.S. Marines returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez chose not to shape their potent source material into a play. In docu form, the thoughtful interviews with these proud but battered “warriors” and their families have raw power — all the more if used as a therapeutic tool inviting the participation of other veterans. Still, watching “ReEntry,” there’s a feeling that a chance has been lost to reach a broader audience through theatrical drama, with fictional characters free to explore the outer limits of disturbing issues no documentary treatment can possibly resolve.
Co-scribes Ackerman and Sanchez, both of whom have brothers who served in the military, conducted about 100 interviews for this commission from Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, N.J. As performed by a stout company under Sanchez’s capable helming, representatives of these anonymous officers and combat personnel are briefly seen and heard in projected images designed by Alex Koch for the multiple video screens stacked up on Marion Williams’ set.
That brief exposure is all it takes for some speakers — like the father who keeps compulsively rewinding videotape of the explosion that killed his son — to make an indelible impression. A few respondents are allowed to develop incrementally, like the dedicated gunnery sergeant forced into early retirement by his war wounds, and his wife, who feels the displacement just as keenly. Asking this couple how they adjusted to coming home is a sad exercise in irony since, as they quietly point out, “Our home was the military, our home was the base. … That was our home.”
Despite the searing impact of such moments, the piece is not the surreal montage suggested by the kaleidoscopic production style, with its startling sound effects (Zach Williamson) and focus-shifting lighting design (Thom Weaver). For all its moving parts, the documentary has a core dynamic that plays — and very much feels — like an unfinished play.
It’s the story of a family that, while unnamed, sounds very much like the family Ackerman describes in program notes: her own. While other respondents are treated with sympathy and respect, this family receives — and deserves — extensive stage time and intense scrutiny.
We are introduced to them obliquely, by a high-ranking Marine Corps officer briefing the parents of young men and women just entering the service. In an astonishing perf from Joseph Harrell, himself a former Marine, this earnest officer levels with the civilians in a compassionate but forthright manner both shocking and oddly comforting. After shattering any illusions about “some mythical American warrior culture,” he lets it be known that the ability to take another person’s life is something that must be taught. “So when I prepare your children, I do so first through classic behavioral conditioning,” reshaping their bodies and molding their minds to accept the unacceptable “as being normal.”
Bobby Moreno does an admirable job as Tommy, the caring Marine officer who acts as mentor to Charlie, a painfully conflicted young soldier played, in separate scenes, by the same actor. Charlie is no fighting machine, having joined up in emulation of his older brother, and a bad combat experience leaves him with a severe case of PTSD.Like Charlie, we’re dazzled by brother John (and by PJ Sosko’s riveting perf), a recruiting poster boy whose gung-ho commitment to the Corps masks an internal struggle with self-destructive impulses he’s smart enough to recognize and articulate with intelligence and feeling. “I’m kinda upset that I don’t have anyone to shoot,” John says, thoughtfully noting, “You are trained to be a certain way, to do certain things, and then you are just supposed to turn that off and go back into society with the rest of you pussies.”
That’s the crux of the matter, and it’s what the families of combat-trained Marines like John and Charlie struggle to understand and live with. Describing John as “intense” is the way Mom (Sameera Luqmaan-Harris) deals with her son’s self-destructive outbursts. Sister Liz (the extremely personable Sheila Tapia) tries to read her brothers’ troubled minds; but like all the others who stand up to testify in this unsettling piece, there comes a point when she’s forced to admit, “I just can’t make sense of any of it.”