Sunday, November 6, 2011

Echoes of a Scream

Echoes of a Scream
By Tom Wachunas

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” – Bertrand Russell –

Even the earliest moments of “Plumfield, Iraq”, the season-opening production at Kent State University at Stark Theatre, augur tragedy. A group of young men and women, running in formation to a lively military cadence call, morphs into a frolicsome gathering of high school buds playing touch football. Someone named Cam is missing from the fun. Cam’s best friend, Mike, gently pleads with the group to wait just a little while longer before going their separate ways and getting on with their day. Indeed, with their lives.

What unfolds, then, is a war tale, a “memory drama” written by Barbara Lebow - here with Brian Newberg directing a youthful, remarkably skilled eight-member cast - that takes place in the guilt/grief-riddled mind of Mike, suffering from a very protracted case of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). He is our lens on simple, innocent life in the fictional small town of Plumfield, Washington, and on the harrowing battlefield of Iraq. It is a lens at once crystal clear and fogged over by the vapors of horrific memories.

Without ever succumbing to ideological axe-grinding, grandstanding, or gratuitous preaching, Lebow’s play is nonetheless an uncompromising look at the awful democracy of war. No respecter of age, gender, politics, or nationality, and with cruel equanimity, it leaves in its wake usurped dreams, wrecked psyches, and otherwise arrested lives. It’s the chaotic contrast between Mike’s nostalgic remembrances of Plumfield pleasantries and his searing wartime flashbacks that drives the story, starting with his reluctant decision to enlist in the Army along with Cam, both fresh out of high school. They’re sent to Iraq, still under a delusion that the worst of the war, initially celebrated for its brevity, was over. They envision returning to the lives and loves they left behind, with their Veteran benefits assuring a college education. Cam would pursue a business career, and Mike a life in music.

There is essentially no physical stage set, and minimal props. In this somber atmosphere, “scenery” is delivered via light effects along with still and moving images projected on the large back wall painted to look like stone. Real war footage is generously interspersed with poignant snapshots and videos of the characters’ laptop missives to each other.

Anthony Antoniades’ portrayal of Mike is for the most part successful in its volatile balance between his character’s gentle nature and his clear horror at what transpires in Iraq. He’s shell shocked, literally and figuratively. At times he’s twisted into a fetal, defensive silence, locked inside overwhelming shadows of loss, failure, and guilt. It’s all a compelling counterpoint to the more ostentatious, confident nature of Cam, played with eminently credible, affectionate gusto by Matt King.

Both Erin Stewart, as Cam’s newlywed wife, Lorraine, and Devonn Patterson, playing Mike’s girlfriend, Beth, bring genuine tenderness along with palpable, bittersweet urgency to their scenes of trying to draw Mike out of his torturous memories. To rejoin the living.

Given all of the story’s sharply and powerfully defined images of psychological and emotional trauma, the play’s final moment of Mike climbing the stairs out of his basement is somewhat ethereal (and maybe for some, unsatisfying) and enigmatic. Is it a flashback, a dream, a goodbye to his life, a promise, a prophecy?

Call it an ascension, then. From the (de)basement of war’s damnable malignancy, to the possibility of curative atonement. Amid echoes of lingering hope.

“Plumfield, Iraq” curtain times are November 10 (Thursday) and 12 at 8 p.m. / November 6 and 13 at 2:30 p.m. in the Kent State University at Stark Theatre, Fine Arts Building. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for senior citizens and students 16 and younger. To order, call (330) 244 – 3348 or visit

Photo: “Echoes of a Scream” enamel on wood by David Alfaro Siquieros, 1937

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