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'Soldier's Heart' strikes deep into painful territory

| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Jeff Swensen
Jenna Cole and Marie Elena O'Brien in The Rep's 'Soldier's Heart.'
Jeff Swensen
Marie Elena O'Brien and Joshua Elijah Reese in The Rep's 'Soldier's Heart'

Sgt. Casey Johnson is a strong, well-organized, fearless woman.

When we first meet her, the 30-year-old Marine is preparing to leave for a six-month tour of duty in Iraq.

She has prepared a meticulous plan and a detailed schedule for her mother, who will take care of Casey's 10-year-old son, Sean, right down to dates, filled-out forms and signed checks to register him up for next spring's baseball team.

Six months later, she returns home a very different woman, physically and emotionally scarred, not just by assaults from enemy combatants, but by those of her fellow soldiers.

“Soldier's Heart,” Shadyside resident Tammy Ryan's latest play, moves between the past and present in Casey's home somewhere in Western Pennsylvania and the combat zones of Iraq, as it examines the events that changed Casey and their effect on her life and the lives of those around her.

The drama is having its world premiere Sept. 26 to Oct. 13 as a production of The Rep, Point Park University's professional theater company.

For several years, Ryan had wanted to write a play about the effect ongoing wars had on families with people serving in the military.

“You can't not think about it,” Ryan says. When reports began surfacing about women in the military being sexually assaulted by other soldiers, she narrowed her focus.

“Not writing about sexual assault would be turning a blind eye to it,” Ryan says.

She also became interested in women who have to leave their kids while serving in combat.

“I'm in awe that they are able to do that. But what is the impact on them?” she asks.

The result is an ultimately hopeful play that examines trauma, a variety of dysfunctional behaviors and how that cycle can be broken. All seven of the drama's characters are recovering from or living with some trauma or dysfunction.

Margie, Casey's mom, is a recovered alcoholic. Kevin, Casey's ex-husband and father to Sean, is an ex-Marine who is dealing with his own post-traumatic-stress disorder. Her battle-hardened military comrades and her commanding officers are callous, manipulative or uncaring.

Young Sean just can't understand what's happened to his warm, supportive mother and why she avoids him.

“There are things we perpetuate and things we have control over,” Ryan says. “If we err on the side of love and compassion, the damage is not irreversible.”

Ryan credits her close relationship with the Pittsburgh Playhouse for giving her the support to write “Soldier's Heart.”

It is the eighth of Ryan's plays to be produced at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

“The Playhouse has committed to me as an artist and not just for one play,” she says. “It's what every playwright wants to have: a home where I can develop my work. If I didn't have the Playhouse, I wouldn't have written half of them or had the courage to write this one.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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