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One of the reasons theatre exists is to inform the viewer, at various levels, about aspects of the human condition. The new work-in-progress by docu-dramatist Mike Wiley, currently being workshopped in staged readings as part of a three-part series, Veterans and their Families, at UNC, opened my mind and heart to lives I had never really considered before. Although still being written and re-written, and although the staging currently consists of six chairs and six adjustable lecterns in the gloomy small Studio Six at Swain Hall, this is a remarkable work, and well worth seeing before its fully-staged premiere at the Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville on March 3. It repeats here January 14 and is an important look into a neglected aspect of warrior culture: the families at home.
Downrange: Voices from the Homefront derives from deep interviews conducted by the playwright and story whisperers Kathryn Hunter-Williams and Lynden Harris of Hidden Voices, with military spouses, mostly women, in Fayetteville — spouses of career soldiers. These are not the physically isolated wives of drafted men of my youth; these women and men are very much part of the military, living on base or in close proximity, the shape of their lives determined by military values and requirements. However you may feel about a standing military, military involvement in world affairs, wars, or the equation of warrior with patriot, this play is very likely to expand your thinking. It seems that humans were born to make war, but also love, and it is the forces of love deployed behind the soldiers that form the subject of Downrange.
With a fictional play, the writer must find ways to make the material ring true, real. With a play based on facts or interviews, he must take care not to let it sound like fiction. What with the amazing quality of this interview material, Wiley's own affinity for Truth with a capital T, and Joseph Megel's unflinching, kind-hearted direction, there is not an instant when one doubts the veracity of what one hears. It helps that the actors here are strong, but the material is so powerful that it would survive even novice thespians. Although not precisely a drama, Wiley is arranging the material in a series of overlapping arcs that ultimately reveal themselves as a circle, and (in the form I saw it) that last story arc gives satisfying aesthetic closure. Currently there is a short coda in which the actors turn and speak to the audience. I found it unnecessary and distracting from the powerful stories — sappy compared to them, and perhaps it will be excised — although it might play well in Fayetteville, or another base town.
The acting team is led by Lakeisha Coffey, showing her range in two roles, and Elisabeth Lewis Corley, who had the room in tears and laughter again and again with her textured voice and exquisite timing. Marie Garlock and Liza Guzman, both previously unknown to me, were both deeply affecting. Wiley had just brought in some new pages yesterday: Guzman had a new scene. Her husband's homecoming (a recurring theme in Downrange, the return from deployment) was to Dover Air Force Base, in a flag-draped coffin. Her rendering of this scene was a marvel of unfeigned emotion and theatrical control. The two men, Sonny Eugene Kelly and Rodney Labrice Walker, were not quite as polished as the four women, but the potential is there. The men, more than the women, seemed hemmed in, constrained, by the row of lecterns separating them from the audience.
The play deals not just with the everyday (all day every day on your lonely own) struggles of the military spouse, but with the dreadful topics of PTSD, traumatic brain injury, suicide, and death in battle. As one character says, "This is not a life for the faint of heart." I learned a lot from Downrange, and that is one of my highest accolades.
To view a list of all production and performances invovled with this new works festival, see the UNC Department of Communication.