Directed by Lucie Tiberghien
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Don’t worry. That cycle of violence you wannna break so badly? We didn’t enlist into it. We were born into it. Once you accept that, going won’t be so scary.” Lance Corporal Lynn Downey, “Soldier X”)
After seeing Rehana Lew Mirza’s “Soldier X” at the HERE Arts Center, one wonders whether the playwright takes on too much, just enough, or not quite enough in her intriguing new play about how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affect those returning from the battlefields and those welcoming them home. Ms. Mirza’s play tackles PTSD, rape, racism, sexism, cultural and religious conflicts, and the cycle of violence on and off the battlefield. The answer might be the playwright needs to tackle all of these war-related issues because they are all connected in a matrix of madness created by the dynamics of conflict.
Jay Richards (played with an explosive calmness by Jared McNeill) returns from Afghanistan harboring a deep secret and an intense guilt related to that secret. He tracks down Amani Mehmod (played with a distrustful innocence by Turna Mete), the sister of his fallen friend Talib who is central to his secret. Though Jay claims not to be suffering from PTSD, he exhibits many of the symptoms of the post-war disorder. He falls for VA therapist Monica Burnes (played with a tentative confidence by Kaliswa Brewster) whom he meets at the local coffee shop but not as hard as he falls for Talib’s sister whom he seems to pursue with an obsession. Barista Lori (Cleo Gray) is responsible for the meeting between Jay and Monica by giving Jay Monica’s number instead of her friend Amani’s number.
The exact cause for that obsession is discovered over the course of the play as Jay interacts with each character in different settings. It is in these interactions that the audience discovers Jay’s conflicts and the complex subplots these conflicts drive. It is as if the audience sees the psyches of each actor played out on Daniel Conway’s clever multi-purpose set. Whether they meet in the VA therapist’s office, the coffee shop, the bar, or in Amani’s apartment, the characters reveal the precise horrors of war and the horrors of surviving that often predate war and presage the stress experienced in conflict.
The soldiers here are to the military industrial complex dispensable: they are, as Jay points out, simply “soldier, X, Y, Z.” They are raped as was Lance Corporal Lynn Downey (Carolyn Michelle Smith) and bring their true enemy home with them. They die as did Amani’s sister Talib often because their own companies mistake them for the enemy. They return home too often with the same will to dominate and the will to exercise absolute power that they sought to eradicate on the battlefield.
Under Lucie Tiberghien’s careful direction, the ensemble cast of “Soldier X” uniformly delivers authentic performances that challenge the audience to rethink important issues of culture and race and how these issues are exacerbated by conflict and the “cycle of violence” into which – as Lance Corporal Lynn Downey affirms – many marginalized persons are born. Carolyn Michelle Smith’s portrayal of Lynn Downey is nothing short of brilliant. Her Lance Corporal bristles with unrequited anger that sends shockwaves through every encounter the character has including her own deeply wounded self. Lynn Downey is the conscience of the characters in this remarkable play and that conscience is a character in and of itself.
If there is a guiding principle of that superego it might be expressed in Monica’s admonition to Lance Corporal Lynn Downey, “Downey. I know you never took much stock of my advice. But. (to herself) Fight for the life you want. Don’t settle for the life you think you deserve.”
“Soldier X” raises a series of deep, rich, and enduring questions. Are religions somehow inherently violent? Why do women and men go to war? When will Christians and Muslims begin to explore each other’s faiths and begin a healthy dialogue? How can the issue of race get a fair hearing in America? When will Americans understand this conversation might be the determining factor in the country’s ability to survive as a truly free and democratic entity? “Soldier X” is worth the trip to the iconic HERE Arts Center.