BWW Reviews: Arena Stage's HEALING WARS Makes World Premiere and Delivers Stunning Visuals
Not quite theatre, not quite dance, and not quite whatever else, Healing Wars is one of those rare artistic offerings that's at the intriguing intersection of various kinds of art. That interdisciplinary approach to making of art is on clear display at Arena Stage right now in this George Washington University commission. Featuring concept and direction from Liz Lerman, a known quantity in the dance world, and using text sources curated by her and screen/stage actor Bill Pullman, the piece explores the effects of war on those who fight them, those who treat the warriors both in the field and after they return home, and those who deal with the effects after they're gone. It conveys that whether one's talking about the wars of yesterday like the Civil War or the more recent experience in Iraq/Afghanistan - while occupying vastly different spaces (time, socio-political context, and geography) - there are some commonalities that can't be ignored. A few things remain constant. War has a lasting effect on individuals and groups touched by the experience.
Certainly, there's no shortage of artistic offerings in the modern era that examine the impacts of war on the fighters and those that support them. In fact, throughout the course of this world premiere production, several are identified. There's also no shortage of pieces that extrapolate (or try to) common experiences across wars. An offering or two or three in last year's Capital Fringe Festival and the relatively recent Studio Theatre presentation of An Iliad come to mind. Even if the less than meticulous comparisons make my head explode (that academic training in sociology and international relations never leaves you), I get the need to make stories about conflict relatable and captivating to all audiences, tell a story that will be engaging, or offer ideas that might add to or advance a set of existing ones on a topic of national interest.
What makes this offering different from the others - and may make it more interesting to those who are bit weary of hearing stories about the ones who come back from Iraq/Afghanistan with missing limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder, other psychologically or social issues, or a combination thereof - is that the ideas we know really well are explored in a way that infuses a variety of art forms.
At the very least, we're left with stunning and concept-appropriate visuals courtesy of scenic/costume designs by David Israel Reynoso, effective staging by Liz Lerman that makes full use of the ample stage in the Kogod Cradle, emotionally-charged, athletic, and well-executed choreography (by Liz Lerman and Keith Thompson in collaboration with the performers). Effective lighting (Heidi Eckwall), sound (Darron L West), and media (Kate Freer) designs that work together as one unit are also key to establishing ambience and capturing the intensity of what the performers are experiencing.
Alas, while the eight performers - most of whom are dancers - do their best to establish emotional connections to the material whether dancing or speaking dialogue, there are many reasons I could not completely become engaged in the story they were telling (apart from my previously stated annoyance over conflating vastly different geopolitical and sociocultural contexts). Most of that has to do what we call "the book."
Before I get to my issues with the "book," however, I will emphasize that credit must be given to Lerman and Pullman for being (or attempting to be) well enough informed of the issues they're examining to put together source material for the presentation that's grounded in truth. Medical discussions, stories from military men and women serving in the Civil War and in the Middle East recently/today, and discussions of the pain of treatment (both physical and psychological) for both the caregiver and the patient - they're all in the show, which is organized thematically.
One problem, however, is the words that are used to describe these concepts are hardly interwoven together in a flowing way. Aside from whether or not the writing is beautiful or sophisticated, there's the issue of whether or not the stories have all been heard before (whether in part or parcel). A few of the spoken segments are powerful even if we may have heard it all before or find them awkwardly written. Paul Hurley's monologue about his experience of being injured in the Middle East comes to mind (Hurley is a Navy vet that served in Bahrain and had his leg amputated and is now a government contractor) as does the story about a Navy surgeon (Bill Pullman) facing the unexpected loss of a patient. Yet, others are downright laughable even if well intentioned. Here we have the example of a discussion between a Spirit who takes the dead to the afterlife (Samantha Speis) and the Navy surgeon over death and dying.
While the six professional dancers try as they might to deliver the lines in an engaging way, it's hard to ignore the elephant in the room that many of them simply appear really uncomfortable and awkward while speaking on stage. Speis is more or less an exception. When these lines are less than inspiring even on paper, the situation gets worse with the execution. Pullman, who definitely has more acting experience than the others, surprisingly doesn't fare any better. His movement is wooden (which might be expected when compared to professional dancers), but his line delivery is many times just as stilted as the dancers. To make things worse, he went up on his lines more than once opening night. I'd expect more from such a seasoned performer who had a hand in curating the source material for the show.
When there is no dialogue to deliver, the dancers soar and rise to the occasion. George Hirsch, Ted Johnson, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, Alli Ross, Samantha Speis, and Keith A. Thompson all are incredible dancers - expressive yet precise. Ross and Speis, in particular caught my eye as among those that meticulously capture every emotion that one might experience in an intense situation through their physical movement. Ross, in particular, when playing a dying soldier in the Civil War, offers a memorable and heart-wrenching performance. Other strong moments come when Thompson and Hurley - men injured in two different wars in two different era - meet one another and express their common experience in a gripping way through movement. Movement, I might add, that told the story far better and in a more engaging way than any of the dialogue in the piece and made me forget my hangup with conflating geopolitical and sociocultural contexts. Hurley is particularly effective here. He's at home onstage just as much as those who do this for a living.
So, here's the deal. From a staging/movement standpoint, it's a production that is both well-executed and visually powerful. There are unique things about it that set it apart from similar shows. I won't spoil it, but beyond the experience of sitting in one's seat and seeing the performance, I would urge everyone to take the time to go through the backstage pre-show experience - it's a valuable addition and well-integrated into the play.
However, if this piece is to be further developed and refined, there needs to be another look at how the words are incorporated into it. While I am not unequivocally suggesting they be removed completely, I will say there's room for improvement as to what they are, what they convey, and how they are delivered.
Running Time: 70 minutes, not including the pre-show experience.
Pictured: Cast of Healing Wars; photo by Teresa Wood
Healing Wars plays through June 29, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - 1101 Sixth Street, SW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.