BWW Reviews: An Overstuffed ONE NIGHT at CATF
Note: The Contemporary American Theater Festival each year produces five new American plays in Shepherdstown, WV (an hour and a half from Baltimore) Wednesdays through Sundays throughout July. This is a review of one of this year's productions. Each will be separately reviewed in this space.]
As I've commented before about contemporary drama in general and about the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, in particular, it seems that the standard template for a serious play these days is for the central characters all to have secrets, and the action of the play to be largely devoted to disclosing them. This structure lends a certain air of predictability to Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Fuller's One Night, a play about two Iraqi War veterans, drifters, both PTSD victims, though one is in much worse shape, who wash up momentarily in a motel off a busy highway somewhere. They were staying in a shelter but there was a fire there.
One secret is revealed almost immediately: the female drifter, identified as Alicia G (Kaliswa Brewster) was raped by four other soldiers back in Iraq (aka the Sandbox), and she only knows the identity of three of them. Care to lay any bets as to who the unknown fourth assailant was, given that the other drifter, Horace Lloyd (Jason Babinsky) is male? The other secret, somehow tied up with the first, is who set the fire at the shelter: it had to be one of the two of them. And, to my way of thinking, that second secret is just too much material for the audience to process successfully. The show is overstuffed.
When I say that, I fully acknowledge that rape in the military is a huge and important subject (one I've written about in a non-reviewer mode), and we need dramas about it. I likewise acknowledge that one of the many reasons it's an important subject is that it often brings lifelong consequences in its train, what physicians would call sequelae. Yet it must also be acknowledged that rape and those sequelae, including PTSD, are inherently melodramatic subjects, and if one puts them in the same dramatic frame with another melodramatic subject, like a fire of unknown origin, it risks provoking rolling eyes in the audience. It's a little too Perils of Pauline-y for the average sensibility. Throw in that Alicia G has a broken marriage and a lost son to mourn, and a show will begin to run a small risk of audience risibility. (One is reminded of Oscar Wilde's remark about hyper-travailed Little Nell: one who could read of her death without laughing must have a heart of stone.)
In fairness, I will not say that there is much actual risk of laughter; the audience with which I saw the show was suitably grave throughout. But the overstuffing does not help the mental digestion. Quite the contrary; there are the bones here of a perfectly respectable play about rape and what comes after in the U.S. military and veterans' system. The play does a fine job of showing how command will undercharge the perpetrators if they are charged at all, and will penalize victims for raising a stink; how urgent requests for veterans' benefits will become lost in the system or denied for lack of documentation that the delay in benefits has itself made likely; and how the supposed advocates for the victims will be so deadened by the way the system has made them ineffective that they come across as cold and unsympathetic. These are familiar tropes to anyone who follows the news, but good ones to bring out in dramatic form.
Perhaps more originally, there is a real exploration of the dynamics of military rape itself, of the question why rape is so prevalent in that environment. Frankly, I did not understand why playwright Fuller felt the need to revert to the revelation-of-dark-secrets template at all. A straightforward telling of the tale would have sufficed nicely.
If Fuller felt the need to bury at least one secret, it should have been the identity of the fourth rapist. But even there, once the not very surprising identification leaks, what Fuller does with it is so good, so articulate, that the framing device seems superfluous. Horace says why it happens. Morally speaking, it may be no excuse, but it at least renders it comprehensible: "We had to come down from killing people everyday - break the frickin' monotony of it - every hour - every minute! - You have to FUCK SOMETHING - just to get the shit out of you." And there was also the resentment of the "grunts" who did the killing but received no decorations against colleagues who did get decorations but were noncombatants by virtue of being women in a military that still keeps women from that kind of fighting. And these revelations are topped off by a spectacular plea for forgiveness that totally sold me on its anguish and sincerity. Her choice in that regard is dramatically credible and heartbreaking.
That is not to say that the play comes down one way or the other on whether Alicia should forgive any of her assailants; that is part of its strength. We can see why she might be better off to err on the side of forgiveness. But that option is neither dramatically nor morally compelled. It's her choice, and we come to care a great deal about what she decides. Rape is about as close to an unforgiveable wrong as exists anywhere.
Shepherdstown is first and foremost about works in progress, plays that are being brought through the development process. Over the past three seasons of attending, I have come to distinguish the ones that are well along and ready for prime time from those that need to be broken down and retooled. One Night fits in the second category. In addition to over-reliance on the hackeyed template of secrets spilling out, it is far too busy and too long.
As to the busyness, one of the good things about the play is a series of flashbacks (to which Alicia, as a PTSD victim, is prone anyway) in which the interactions with the system, from the rape to the attempt to report it, to the disposition of the rape complaint, to the utterly frustrating interactions with the utterly incompetent Veterans' Administration, are replayed. These are uniformly well done, with Brit Whittle and Shauna Miles filling ably the various roles of the other characters in these vignettes. (I particularly liked Miles as the military prosecutor, talking in deadpan fashion about how she personally dealt with her own rapist.) But the staging of these vignettes sometimes plays right over the material from the dramatic present, so one cannot hear what is being said in both frames. Likewise, the constant intrusions of the hotel proprietor Meny (Willie C. Carpenter), a state trooper and a fire marshal (both Brit Whittle) often seem to lack any clear purpose in moving the play forward. There is also some confusing and barely audible or outright inaudible dialogue coming through the wall with what sounds like a porno movie being made in the adjacent motel room. It could go, and no one the worse.
So I think Mr. Fuller needs to go back to the drawing board. A story told in more straightforward and shorter fashion might go down much better.
Of course, what Shepherdstown audiences are being offered is not the play as Fuller might rewrite it in the future. In my own estimation, and in that of numerous other members of the audience with whom I talked, this in its current form was the weakest of the five plays the CATF is putting on in this year's festival.
That said, the most important parts of the drama are worthwhile, and I would say on balance it still repays an audience's attention. Brewster is outstanding as a woman fragmented by PTSD (owing not just to the rape, but to everything she had gone through, including watching colleages blown to bits), and Babinsky (who showed impressive range in alternating between this and a totally different role in another play) was simply outstanding as a man playing all the angles to achieve an unacknowledged agenda.
One final comment, and again in saying this I am echoing what a number of Festival-goers said to me: The incidence of foul language in this play and three others was simply wearying and unnecessary. Soldiers curse; we get it. But it's not necessary to reproduce all the blue talk all the time in order to impart that sense of authenticity. The obscenity becomes so offputting in the end that, to use military jargon, it imperils the mission. CATF should think about this. To paraphrase a famous military exhortation during World War Two, CATF should ask itself, when considering scripts: Is this cussword really necessary?
One Night, by Charles Fuller, directed by Ed Herendeen, through August 3, at the Frank Center Stage, 260 University Drive, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $30-$59, www.catf.org/boxoffice, 304-876-5443 (credit cards) or 304-876-3473. Adult themes, adult language.