Deborah Salem Smith


Boots on the Ground Review


Bob Kerr: The theater is too small for the play



April 21, 2006

The first reaction to something as vital and timely as Boots on the Ground at Trinity Rep is that it has to get out of Trinity Rep.

It has to go on the road and move among the people it is about. It has to stir feelings and spark discussion in places far removed from Trinity's intimate Dowling Theater.

As I sat and listened during Act II, which is an audience discussion of the 90-minute telling of the Iraq war experience, I couldn't help the feeling that it was too confined, too much an exercise among people already inclined to consider its lessons.

Take it to a church, a school, a town common on a warm spring night. Take it to places where its characters can seem like the friends and neighbors they are.

Laura Kepley and D. Salem Smith, who came up with the idea, interviewed more than 70 people who have been to Iraq, welcomed someone home from Iraq or dealt with Iraq's physical and emotional toll. From those interviews, they narrowed the list of characters to 22.

They gave those characters to five actors -- Richard Donnelly, Anne Scurria, Stephen Thorne, Rachael Warren and Joe Wilson Jr. -- who walk out and tell us about funny, profane, haunting things that they confronted in Iraq, in the family room back home, in a hospital.

It connects so well and so quickly because there is no attempt to fit it to a message. Its strength is its simple honesty. Its set is a bare platform, some sand and sandbags and costume trunks.

As Joe Wilson Jr. pointed out during Act II, he didn't make up the words he was saying. They are the words of people who will probably carry at least a little piece of Iraq with them forever.

It cannot be stated often enough or strongly enough that the story of this war is not being well told. The press coverage has been tightly controlled. We know little of the war's impact on the Iraqi people. We know little of what happens once Rhode Island's soldiers and sailors and Marines walk off the plane and try to fit back in. And for far too many of us, the war has absolutely no place in the daily game plan.

So Boots on the Ground is important. It gives us a sense of how the war follows people and won't let go.

We hear from soldiers and parents, wives and husbands and doctors and therapists. And one newspaper editor.

We hear from Theresia Kelly, played by Anne Scurria, whose son Josh was due to get out of the Army before the Iraq war began. Then he was "stop lossed," kept on duty for another three years and two tours in Iraq. Her son is 25, says Kelly, but he seems 10 years older.

We hear too from Joel Rawson, the Journal's executive editor, played by Richard Donnelly, who has known two wars. He was a pilot in Vietnam, a reporter in Iraq. He talks of the anger that won't go away from his first war.

There are stories of the mundane and the deadly -- of the particular agony of diarrhea in the desert and of the face that keeps appearing after the war is left behind of a young Iraqi shot beneath the right eye by an equally young American.

Husbands and wives talk of trying to put lives back together as subtle, often indefinable things get in the way.

It's spectacularly ordinary. It's "have a seat and let me tell you about this war I got involved in." It's a wonderful theater doing a very good thing for the place it calls home. It runs at Trinity Rep through May 21.

But it really should run in a bunch of places. It has things to tell us that we're not hearing anywhere else.