Haunting, beautiful, and ablaze with human dignity, Healing Wars is a meditation on the meanings and implications of war. Washington’s own director/choreographer Liz Lerman has turned to seven score and ten years ago, when our country was in the grip of a war that threatened to tear us all apart. (Some say we are still fighting that war.)
This important 150th anniversary project of the Civil War has just opened at Arena Stage, and it will continue to grow and travel to at least three more cities in its ambitious collaborative undertaking. I say, “Bravo Tutti!” This is just what Arena Stage and Washington theatre should be serving up!
Truly bold and dangerous, the work has already taken three years and countless hours of commitment by an ensemble of artists who have stayed the course. They have come together from different cities in intensive encounters to research and explore characters and help devise a structure and movement palette to tell the story of not just the Civil War but, like all great art, of how it speaks with its own times.
Before the performance begins, we are first led into a labyrinthian series of “backstage” installations and are encouraged to linger. In the darkness, I come across small room after room in which a solo performer is featured, engaged in a little set of ritualistic movements. A slender woman clings to a wall wrapped in burlap-like curtains and pulls herself up, down and across it in what seems an odd exercise of survival.
A young man paces in his bedroom and traces patterns on the wallpaper on the eve of his departure for war. Another man is tied to a rocking chair and left alone to sit in an attic. (We learn from a placard on the wall that this is how many men were “treated” after coming home from the Civil War with what we now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress.)
A woman in a hoop skirt stands under a spreading tree where are hung dozens of handwritten letters all marked by a small red seal, and she sits to write another. A man, surrounded by low-hanging pendant lights, moves around a bedframe that sits on a great pile of fresh dirt, which he sprinkles through the exposed springs. Perhaps he’s the perennial grave digger. A woman walks numbly in the odd shadows created by the same swinging-pendulum lights, brushing up against us without ever acknowledging we are there. At the end of these powerfully mysterious images there is a shrine made of willow branches. Inside this niche are candles, little cameos, and tiny-framed portraits from the 1860’s. One has to peer in close to see anything.
I was put in mind of the intimate plays of Maria Irene Fornes where the audience moved from room to room to “discover” the work and also the pre-show rituals of Théâtre du Soleil from Paris when audience members enter the space under bleachers and fall silent watching Ariane Mnouchkine’s actors putting on heavily theatrical makeup and attire. I understand immediately that here, too, we are being helped to leave our outer lives and the day’s business behind and emotionally and spiritually prepare ourselves to bear witness to a powerful human drama.
When at last we come out, we find we are in one last anteroom and there on a bench are two men talking. One is Bill Pullman, recognized immediately from his roles in film, here serving as a kind of interviewer. With him sitting on the bench is a young man, all American, with a strong build and a handsomely open face and, what has become an all-too-featured phenomenon in the Washington area (though shocking nonetheless,) a 21st-century designed prosthetic leg. I find myself looking, then looking away, but the two men are not going anywhere, and in fact Pullman is asking about the missing leg, about the war, and the experience of coming back.
On opening night, someone in uniform who had been watching suddenly inserts himself into the scene and surprised the wounded soldier. It is his nurse from Walter Reed Army Hospital, who had helped the returning soldier with physical therapy. Their reunion was as moving as it was authentic. Former soldier Paul Hurley’s participation in Healing Wars not only in the prologue but as integrated character and dancer adds so meaningfully to the work’s power.
But then, one cannot imagine the show to be as deep or riveting without the faithful contributions of every one of these artists. The magic is due to how Lerman has brought the performers into the creative process. Such a process takes an investment of time and resources. Sadly, art and art makers today are all too often considered exposable or at least interchangeable, and the faster one throws something up, as in the typical “coming together for three weeks and making a big fist” as a famous actor once boasted of a typical rehearsal process in America, the more likely we get ever more diluted “entertainments” instead of art. Lerman, with help from colleagues Pullman (text) and Keith A. Thompson (choreography,) has defied those limitations placed on a work and she has done it with a sharp discerning eye and a faithful heart.
This dance-theatre work has new-minted choreographic vocabularies and impulses to remind us about the cost of war for women as well as men. From contact improvisation, bodies get flung together and apart and carry each other on and off battlegrounds. An iconic Martha Graham contraction becomes the emotional and visceral “retching” of having to see so much carnage strewn across a battlefield. Kinetic isolations and repetitive gestures become the telltale wounds of battle-shot brains forever reliving the anxiety and nightmares of their missions. Slow motion sequences evoke the controlled “healing” qualities of Tai Chi and QiGong while making us feel at once the numbing nightmarish quality of war. Even hip-hop is borrowed from to show both how people get called up and caught up in puppet-like rank and file to march off to another war and also how many escape through plugged-in pop culture from harsh global realities.
Never does a movement call attention to itself for virtuosity’s sake (although these dancers are beautiful to watch and highly skilled) nor does one moment ever settle for “pretty.” The gravitas, human dignity, and authentic presence of these dancers achieve the goal of a work of meditation beautifully.
Healing Wars seamlessly moves between dances and spoken text, and performers shift between multiple roles in two different centuries. There is even a song, a hauntingly plaintiff rendition by Ted Johnson, a longtime collaborator with Lerman, of “Johnny Comes Marching Home.” A captivating dancer also, Johnson can rebound from falling and shift between movement styles like a cat with nine lives.
The authentic connection that each performer achieves with his character is what makes the work so profoundly moving. It’s clear that the performers have researched and created characters that sear themselves into our brains because their testaments seared themselves first inside the minds of the artist-researchers. The characters, woven into the performance, all gain resonance connecting back to the emblematic installations where they first introduced themselves.
The young woman Alli Ross describes being challenged in training to keep a pig alive despite the pig being shot repeatedly in the face and even set on fire. She screams, “I kept that pig alive for 14 hours. It was MY PIG!” Johnson’s haunted emotional stillness makes vivid that the worst wounds are the ones we cannot see.
Bill Pullman plays a naval field surgeon who has worked on hundreds of patients but who suddenly gets caught out emotionally over one, a young man whose life he once saved only to patch up and send back out to be killed days later, and he remains haunted by it. Pullman’s wife in real life, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, takes on heroic proportions to convey the Clara Barton who worked tirelessly to connect back with families and write them of their fallen so that not one life, one sacrifice, would be forgotten. George Hirsch takes on the young untried soldier caught up in the call to duty, as recognizable in his Civil War moments as he were someone’s brother, son or friend today. Keith Thompson, with his grounded movements and his haunting stage presence, represents the veteran who has buried the dead, survived all wars, and still slogs on.
Closes June 29, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Performance: 1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $79 – 99
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The one other-worldy invention in this show has been created jointly by Samantha Speis and Marjani Forté who share the role and who represent something between the Angel of Mercy and the Grim Reaper. As the figure who provides what each dying person needs to leave this world and move to the next, the dancer whirls and dives, sweeps up and carries the other bodies around the space. She is a force indeed but one glimpses the emotional cost as the body count mounts and she grows exhausted by wars’ toll.
The show’s designers including Darron L. West (Sound,) Heidi Eckwall (Lights) and David Israel Reynoso (Environment and Costumes) are to be commended for co-creating such a rich world.
People who are decision-makers on wars and people who file up to go fight in them, people who come back from war with wounds visible and invisible and people whose people have not come back, people who fight against wars and people who think that wars don’t touch them – everyone, indeed, should see Healing Wars. Everyone.
Healing Wars . Concept, Direction, and Choreography by Liz Lerman . Additional Choreography by Keith Thompson . Featuring Marjani Forte, George Hirsch, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, Ted Johnson, Bill Pullman, Alli Ross, Samantha Speis, Keith A. Thompson .
Set and Costume Designer: David Israel Reynoso . Lighting Designer: Heidi Eckwall . Sound Designer: Darron L. West . Media Designer: Kate Freer . Stage Manager: Olivia O’Brien . Production Manager: Meg Kelly . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.