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PlayMakers Repertory Company Review: Newly Minted 2nd Lt. Heather Grayson Comes of Age in After the Storm

May 8, 2003 - Chapel Hill, NC:


Each of us has a carefully crafted basic "life story" about who we are and what we have done and what has been done to us. Every day, we tell parts of it to family, friends, casual acquaintances, coworkers, bosses, and potential employers. Some of us — the most desperate, the most intoxicated, the deranged — corner complete strangers on the sidewalk and forcefully share some of our most intimate moments. For the captive audience of one, it can be a frightening or deeply embarrassing experience. But most of us cannot help ourselves. We have to tell our stories. It is who we think we are. God knows, it may even be who we are.

Needless to say, some life stories are better — much better — than others. After the Storm, an intriguing one-woman show written and performed by New York actress and playwright and Persian Gulf War veteran Heather Grayson and hosted May 7-10 by PlayMakers Repertory Company, is a real humdinger of a coming-of-age story. Grayson really knows how to shape her thoughts and experiences into compelling dramatic moments.

She strips away — figuratively and literally — the dross to reveal golden nuggets of insight underneath. She tells her story frankly, warts and all. It is an incredibly courageous choice to wash one's dirty linen on stage night after night.

Grayson, who earned an undergraduate degree in English literature from Vanderbilt University in 1989, was a U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) student who entered the peacetime Army as a second lieutenant. She became an explosive ordinance disposal technician, disarming World War II artillery shells and bombs in Europe. Then in late 1990 and early 1991 came Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm and a transfer to Kuwait where the green lieutenant filled a captain's slot, serving as acting commander of an explosive ordinance disposal team.

Just the fact that she is female made Grayson a target for sexist remarks. Her large breasts, Grayson says, brought even more unwelcome attention. As a female officer who wanted to make a career in the Army, she could either ignore the leers and offensive remarks, or fight back and risk being labeled a troublemaker. She had to prove she was tough enough.

Later, while her team was in Kuwait cleaning up after the biggest ammunition explosion since Vietnam, there was a second explosion that killed three of her men. Rather than objectively investigating the incident, her superiors tried to make her a scapegoat, exploring whether she should be put on trial for negligent homicide. Sexist officers whose unwelcome overtures she had deflected became key witnesses. Her career — her freedom — hung in the balance.

After being cleared of the negligent-homicide charge in the second explosion, Grayson found she no longer wanted to be all that she could be. She had made the captain's list, but resigned her commission, left the Army, and enrolled in graduate school to study acting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now, she practices the art and craft she leaned in Chapel Hill classroom in New York City and on the road.

Now, Grayson returns to UNC with a powerful play, After the Storm that dramatizes a dark night of her soul, adding a liberal dash of humor. Produced by the Bombshell Productions LLC, in association with Good Bones, the current National Tour of After the Storm is a real eye-opener about the plight of women in the military in general and the predicament of Heather Grayson in particular. Grayson's gritty reminiscences provide an excellent showcase for the actress' considerable comic and dramatic talents. Director Tessa Leigh Derfner gets a gutsy and highly entertaining performance from Grayson, and the disappointingly small audience for Grayson's May 8 performance got a rousing and timely wakeup call about sexism in the military.

PlayMakers Repertory Company hosts the Bombshell Productions LLC (in association with Good Bones) National Tour of After the Storm Thursday-Saturday, May 8-10, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 11, at 2 p.m. in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill. $15 ($10 students). (NOTE: There will be a talkback session with the actor and director on May 9.) 919/962-PLAY (7529). http://www.playmakersrep.org/afterstorm.html and http://www.bombshellproductions.com/bombshell/current/ inactive 8/04] .