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'Soldier's Heart' has lessons to teach

| Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, 7:22 p.m.
Jeff Swensen
Marie Elena O'Brien and Joshua Elijah Reese in The Rep's 'Soldier's Heart.'
Jeff Swensen,
The Rep's 'Soldier's Heart' stars Marie Elena O'Brien and Michael Fuller.

The Rep's warning that “Soldier's Heart” is intended for mature audiences is one to be heeded.

Some will be put off by the abundance of profanity and, while there is no nudity, there is one simulated sex act that — rightly — will generate discomfort.

But those are not the only reasons for the notice.

Tammy Ryan's “Soldier's Heart,” which is having its world premiere through Oct. 13, is a tense, raw, troubling and no-nonsense examination of what happens to soldiers, particularly female soldiers, serving in the military in general and Iraq in particular.

It begins with Casey Johnson, a mature, confident and level-headed Marine, preparing for a six-month deployment to Iraq where she will serve on a security detail.

Casey comes from a military family, so she's proud to be serving her country and fighting the bad guys, but has few romantic illusions about war.

She has made a careful, well-organized plan that will help her mother take care of Sean, Casey's 10-year-old son.

The Casey who returns home six months later is scarred and damaged mentally and physically from assaults received in contact with the enemy and from soldiers in her unit.

In writing “Soldier's Heart,” Ryan drew on interviews with soldiers who had served in the Middle East, along with books, documentaries and news reports of the conflict itself and reports of sexual assaults against women in the military.

Casey's struggles move back and forth over a nine-month period in her Southwestern Pennsylvania home and Iraq as she tries to deal with her emotional scars while reliving the traumatic moments that caused them.

This is not an easy play to watch.

Nor is it meant to be.

Director John Amplas keeps the tension high throughout, a strategy enhanced by the intimate surroundings of the Studio Theatre where the action plays out within inches of the audience.

The muddy confusion of war is clearly represented by Jessi Sedon-Essad's video designs, Kristopher Buggey's sound designs and Andrew David Ostrowski's lighting designs that play out on the corrugated walls and spare, all-gray furnishings of Gianni Downs' set.

Casey's vulnerability, anguish and inability to get off the couch could easily become tedious.

But actress Maria Elena O'Brien portrays Casey's mental torment with a precision and directness that compels you to care.

Casey is not the only person in this drama who's one of the walking wounded.

Casey's mother, Margie; her son, Sean; and her former partner, Kevin, make it clear those veterans of wars past and present — and their families — bear the scars from war and military deployment.

The cast backing up O'Brien is first-rate, from Jenna Cole's portrayal of Casey's blue-collar mom to Jaime Slavinsky's Lance Cpl. Jaime Hernandez.

Michael Fuller creates an eerie presence as the detached and menacing Capt. Christopher Barnes and Joseph Elijah Reese provides vivid support as Kevin.

“Soldier's Heart” is unlikely to be used as a recruiting tool by the armed services.

But it's neither anti-war, nor anti-military.

Ultimately, it is an indictment of military indifference to the lasting harm inflicted on troops while fighting wars with no clear enemy on the battlefield or within the military itself.

While Ryan ends her drama on a hopeful note, she makes clear that our veterans deserve better.

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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