It is a measure of the Obama Administration’s successful wind-down of the war in Iraq that Dear Sara Jane, Victor Lodato’s complex meditation on the uses of violence now being given a careful and intelligent production by the Hub Theatre, seems more abstract than it did at the Contemporary American Theater Festival eight months ago, and thus more purely an anti-war piece. Last July, the Iraq war’s worst depredations were fresh in our memory, as was the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States – the impetus for women and men like Sara Jane’s husband to join the military in the first place. It was truly a morally ambiguous time, where the brutal acts of the enemy – beheadings and the like – counterbalanced the humiliating revelations of our own behavior at Gitmo. With the passage of two-thirds of a year of relative calm, it almost seems as those these things happened at another time, or to someone else, and we can be self-righteous about it.
Well, good for us, although I suspect the issue may come up again. To Lodato’s credit, he looks at war and violence not as a simple manifestation of evil, but as a dangerous tool upon which we have become frighteningly dependent. We all know that war is hell, but Lodato particularizes hell, and focuses on its effect on the dispensers of violence, more than the recipients.
He does this mostly through the voice of Sara Jane (Casie Platt), the mild, loving, somewhat dim wife of a man who has gone to war. Sara Jane is the child of a military family, whose father went to Korea and whose grandfather fought in the Second War, and whose most vivid childhood memory is of the time she visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where her father wept. During the course of the play, Lodato peels her open like an onion, and we see that husband Jerry is a man who might be friends with violence; that Sara Jane has eroticized violence; that she wants to know her place and accepts violence as a way to keep her there; but at bottom is terrified by violence-enforced order, and fears retributive violence.
The contrary viewpoint is carried by Sara Jane’s twin sister Lynnie (Casie Platt), a violently expressive – and apparently deranged – woman who has been traumatized, and radicalized, by the effect which war has had on her family. Lynnie’s understanding is acute, and her willingness to cut through convention and euphemism is impressive, but her responsive repertoire is limited to sleeping under cars and using the cat box, um, in the same way the cat does.
If you are going to produce a one-actor, two-character play, embracing extremes of self-deception and honesty, overstatement and understatement, you had better have a good actor. If at the same time those characters are going to be funny without being arch, and both simple and sympathetic, you had better have a damn good actor. In Platt, Hub does. She lays her Sara Jane guilelessly before us, never permitting us to condescend. Her Lynnie is both fearful and frightening, but we can always see the aching emptiness inside of her. Like Lodato himself, Platt is an expert at doling out information at exactly the right pace, and on the heels of her triumphant performance in Angels in America here shows herself to be a go-to choice for roles with high dramatic tension.
Lodato has unfortunately cluttered this fine play with an additional subplot involving the relationship between Sara Jane and Lynnie, leaving the regrettable impression that they may, in fact, be the same person. Director Jessica Lefkow wisely steers away from this interpretation, but she cannot avoid it completely. These implications, which distract from the play’s main story, are the only flaws in this otherwise first-rate play and production.
Dear Sara Jane
By Victor Lodato
Directed by Jessica Lefkow
Produced by the Hub Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: two hours, with one intermission.