Boots on the Ground reviews



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.

Powerful ‘Boots’ is a shared story about war’s cost


April 21, 2006

It’s for bringing people into a room to speak and think and feel something unexpected about something important. Together. It’s for sharing a million uniquely individual stories to remind us that we all share one story: We are all human. And when we experience a real work of art with other humans, we remember what that means.

”Boots on the Ground” is a real work of art.

It began with a desire on the part of Amanda Dehnert, acting artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company, to commission a play for this season that would reflect the current lives of real Rhode Islanders. In doing research, Dehnert and her team noticed one issue that kept coming up, something important that people felt they weren’t hearing enough about in the public discourse: the war in Iraq and, more specifically, its effect on the people who were fighting it and on those who waited for them at home.

So Trinity’s Laura Kepley and D. Salem Smith set out to interview Rhode Islanders affected by the war. They ended up with 200 hours of tape from conversations with more than 70 people. Out of that mass of material, they have assembled an elegantly shaped, funny, tragic, touching, silly, and deeply real 90 minutes of ordinary people telling the truth about their lives.

We hear from a high-school dropout who enlisted after his car broke down, keeping him from his job at McDonald’s. We meet a wife who’d been married just six days when her husband was deployed. We see other wives working in a support center for families, a captain who grieves the men he lost, a doctor who meditates on his deepening expertise in amputation and prosthetics, a newspaper editor who chose to be embedded with US troops in part to confront his memories of Vietnam. And that’s just Act 1.

Act 2 may sound, at first, like a gimmick: It’s an audience discussion. But Trinity is serious about stimulating a real conversation as part of this work, and on opening night, at least, that developed into a thoughtful, multifaceted, and respectful exchange that did, in fact, continue the experience we’d shared in Act 1.

During the discussion, a few people complained that none of the play’s voices belonged to a protester. They missed the point: ”Boots on the Ground” is successful precisely because it avoids polemic, on either side. It aims to show us the human cost of war, and it succeeds. Then it wisely lets us reflect on whether the cost is worth it, rather than telling us what to feel.

Not just Kepley (who directed) and Smith deserve credit for that subtle approach. The five actors who inhabit a multitude of roles — Richard Donelly, Anne Scurria, Stephen Thorne, Rachael Warren, and Joe Wilson Jr. — all do magnificent work here. Richly varied in gesture, mood, affect, and accent, the people they bring to life are just that: people.

William Lane costumes them nicely, too, in beige tones that evoke uniforms when necessary but can just as easily clothe a social worker or a worried mom. Beowulf Boritt’s simple set, a wooden platform on gritty sand, allows similar transformations and leaves room for Jamie McElhinney’s strong video projections. Though the music sometimes seems more Vietnam-era rock than Iraq War rap, Peter Sasha Horowitz’s sound design supports everyone onstage.

Perhaps most of all, we should be grateful to the people who agreed to share their stories. Fittingly, the show begins and ends with excerpts from interviews, which gradually blend into or out of the speaking voice of an actor onstage. We are at once reminded that these stories are real and rewarded with their transformation into real and powerful art.