Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Remember that feeling? Of endless energy?/Endless joy? Like when you’d have your/parents’ car late at night with your friends? All/the windows down? In the summer? Loud/music? Your hands on the wheel? Everything/felt so strong? So easy? So light?/Where is that?/Who feels that anymore?” – Mom to Smith
Daniel Talbott has written one of the best surreal, kaleidoscopic fables about not just the horrific legacy of combat on “foreign” soil but perhaps more importantly about the specter of all human conflict – physical, psychological, and spiritual. The unnamed military outpost that serves as the setting for Daniel Talbott’s “Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait” serves as a trope for all of the “mental wards in the middle of the desert” where feelings become numb and connections to moral centers become unhinged.
On the surface, this challenging and well-constructed play centers around the conflicts between Smith (Seth Numrich), Leadem (Brian Miskell), Miller (Chris Stack), and their collective demons past, present, and future. Those demons include the Serbian woman (Jelena Stupljanin) who introduces the play and serves as the soldiers’ superego and the fusillade of hallucinations that both anchor the three men and challenges them to ultimately question the possibility and desirability of survival. Beneath the surface, covering the play’s underbelly, is an absurdist exploration of the meaning of life and the ability of the species to survive (yes, it is that dark).
Raul Abrego’s multilayered set, covered with the dry desert sand that stretches into the audience, connects profoundly to the creviced contours of the brain and the elusive mind that mysteriously counterpoints the more tangible structures of the brain. Just as the audience steps carefully over uneven terrain to get to their seats, actors and audience members are challenged to stumble over repressed memories and navigate their own issues of survival. The specter of discomfort pervades the spaces of set and mind.
The cast is uniformly brilliant. Seth Numrich brings a tortured authenticity to his portrayal of Smith the young soldier who attempts to hold onto the belief that somehow what he has done in the desert mattered and that someone was on the way to rescue him and his mates. Abject angst pours from every pore of Mr. Numrich’s being as he gives life to the deconstruction of his character Smith. Brian Miskell gives a charming vulnerability to Leadem who leans heavily on his vivid imagination to survive the desert. Chris Stack’s Miller completes the trio of soldiers awaiting rescue. Mr. Stack brings a frenetic presence into the well-established family system and manages to add his character’s own brand of dysfunction to daily life in the outpost.
This talented cast is rounded out by the equally talented Jimi Stanton (Brother), Kathryn Erbe (Mom), Andy Striph (Soldier 4), and Stephen Dexter (Soldier 5). Ms. Erbe is a powerful presence as the hallucination (“Do you think they’re real?” Leadem asks) that not only haunts Smith repeatedly but eventually ushers him into a new and unfamiliar place. More cannot be said about this encounter without a spoiler alert.
Just as the spoils of war continue to leave trails of death, destruction, rape, suicide, and despair so the spoils of living leave trails of joylessness, ennui, weakness, numbness, regret, and guilt. Soldiers of war and soldiers of civilian life hunker down waiting for reinforcements or for much-needed supplies which, more often than not, never arrive or fail to arrive on time. Whether it be Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Kuwait, Charleston, Birmingham, Ferguson, or Aurora (among many other outposts) these soldiers long for times of peace, justice, equality, freedom, joy. Daniel Talbott raises profoundly rich questions in his new drama that resound far from the battlefields of war.