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Michael is a soldier. Was a soldier. Still is, in the dark recesses of his mind. You see, he can't get away from them. They are always with him, rattling around inside his head. Memories. His Humvee was attacked, and the man he came up through boot camp with was killed – his right hand landed in Michael's lap. He has a medical discharge from service; he's been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Michael (Trevor Johnson) is one of three distinct and fascinating characters in the newest work by the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance. The show, Closer Than They Appear, is the first to combine live performance with the new technology of Virtual Reality. VR is used by Michael's doctor, Hanna (Elizabeth Lewis Corley), to help Michael through his PTSD, so he can get back to living, as he calls it, "moving forward." The performance runs now through October 1 in the theater in Swain Hall, UNC.
Written by Christine Evans, a faculty member in Georgetown University's Department of the Performing Arts, Closer Than They Appear began its ten-year progression to its current form as a one-act play called You Are Dead. You are Here. Evans, Joseph Megel of StreetSigns, and a growing team of technical and developmental staff have researched, workshopped, and shaped You Are Dead. You Are Here into the play's current form, Closer Than They Appear. Media design for the show is by Jared Mezzocchi.
There is a third character in the work, a young Iraqi girl trapped in her own home in Fallujah, who blogs through her computer to anyone listening. Zaynah (Smira Misra) describes the daily life she must endure while trapped in her home by the war outside. Zaynah, Michael, and Hanna will all come together, later in the performance. Right now, she blogs.
Using the entire stage for a screen, StreetSigns projects for us what Michael sees in his VR. To begin with, he is a passenger in a Humvee driven by Shotgun Ace, Michael's buddy from boot camp. We see the roads they travel, the cities they enter, the people they encounter. There are children everywhere; mostly they are targets. Zaynah tells us how she finds the head of a young boy, that she recognized as one of her younger brother's friends. The war goes on literally around her, as the family seems to be shrinking, literally by the minute.
Smira Misra also plays another character, a temporary clerical worker named Nadia, who is answering the phones in Dr. Hanna's office. Nadia has a tendency to be underfoot; she goes where she shouldn't and seems to be unable to do what she should. Hanna is constantly upbraiding her for her wandering, and for appearing suddenly, unannounced, in the middle of therapy sessions – particularly, it seems, in Michael's therapy sessions.
What the show is attempting to do is to use modern media to tell the story of modern war and the effect it has on those who experience it, whether as a soldier, a citizen like Zaynah, or vicariously, like Hanna. We also learn that Hanna has a daughter, Marian, who is herself in the military. A good deal of Hanna's frustration comes from the fact that she cannot reach her daughter, either by phone or by text.
The show is fleet, about 70 minutes. Michael's journey through his treatment is the main story line, but Hanna's futile attempts to reach her daughter and Zaynah's attempts to reach outside war-torn Iraq run concurrently throughout the show. The main thing Hanna tries to get from Michael is what happened the day the unit was ambushed; she feels strongly that, if she can get Michael through that, he can move on. But Michael refuses to talk about it; we are not even sure he can remember exactly what it was.
Johnson's Michael visits Hanna once a week. He looks like hell. He can't sleep, his anxiety level spikes at odd intervals, and he cannot – to his own horror – even manage a trip to WalMart to buy toothpaste. Johnson reveals these feelings, not in words – he doesn't like to talk about it – but in his every fiber of being. Johnson is being Michael and living in his hell, one brought on by an incident. It is this incident that has caused Michael's PTSD, and Hanna is determined to unlock Michael from his trials by unlocking the secret incident that Michael is keeping hidden inside himself.
Closer Than They Appear literally places war-torn Iraq in our laps. We see it as clearly as does Michael, through virtual reality. We see it through the eyes of an innocent, Zaynah, as her family shrinks around her. We feel it through the frustrations of Hanna as she fights to reach Michael and as she fights to reach her own daughter. If war is hell, this is what hell looks like in the 21st century.
Michael talks about reconnaissance. He says that you have to go out and find the enemies before you can fight them. But they are always there, always watching. He can't see them, but he can feel them. And just like in that right side mirror on your car, they are always Closer Than They Appear.
The production runs through 10/1. For details, see the sidebar.