Three scenes and thirty minutes, War and Therapy barely scratches the surface with its subject material. More of a spark to encourage discussion, the short play shows audiences the issues with therapy and war veterans, and it warns against the dangers of labeling “mental illnesses” in vets. Writer Paula J. Caplan is clearly an expert on her subject material, but the execution and performance could use work. Despite its theatrical pitfalls, the information is there, and hopefully the piece can serve as a jumping off point to educating the public about therapy and war vets.
Only two characters are present in War and Therapy: an Iraq War vet, Julia (Nichole Donjé), and her psychologist, Dr. Pauk (Paula J. Caplan). Their relationship is difficult; Julia feels that Dr. Pauk doesn’t understand her, and Dr. Pauk is unsure of how to help Julia. The stress Dr. Pauk feels comes across as genuine, but her execution is bizarre. A psychologist who is dealing with the inner turmoil of not knowing how to treat a patient, Dr. Pauk allows this to come across in her sessions with Julia, which makes the character seem fake. Pauk is constantly loosing her cool, and speaks frantically to Julia during their sessions, making Julia upset and even more frustrated. I wondered, as I watched the two of them interact, is it professional for a therapist to be acting this way during a session? Even if she is struggling with finding a way to help her patient, should she really be speaking so frantically, grasping for answers in front of the person who is desperately coming to her for help? It seemed a bit odd and unrealistic that the therapist would show these inner struggles to her patient—though the struggles most certainly were real and well founded—it just seemed strange to portray them to a person who is looking to the doctor for guidance.
Caplan, a psychologist herself, shows a mastery of the material through her writing, though her acting is distracting. A little over the top, and a little phony, she is outshone by her co-star. Donjé’s performance is real, powerful, and entrancing. She demands a stage presence that is impossible to tear away from, and her emotional maturity with the character is impressive. Playing a war vet, Donjé commented during a talk-back after the show that she read countless articles, and talked to many vets about their feelings and what they saw as soldiers. It is clear that she has not only done her research, but embodies the information, emotion, and pain that these vets carry with them.
War and Therapy is an introduction to the issues it tackles. It’s hard to fully dissect such a complex issue in just thirty minutes and three scenes, but it does provide an effective starting point that will hopefully inspire more discourse on the topics. The talk-back after the show with Caplan and Donjé was a great addition to the show itself; it offered an opportunity for some vets in the audience to voice their opinions, and ask Caplan about her work. Insightful to say the least, hopefully these talk backs continue, and if the audiences are lucky, veterans will be in the audience and speak up about what works and what doesn’t work.
Before closing comments for the night, one veteran pointed out that the most effective part of the play was the simple fact that it shows veterans that they are not alone with these feelings — the feelings that Julia has in the play, the emotions that are weighing her down, that are depriving her of sleep, that are causing her to panic at any given moment. The veteran stressed that one of the most powerful tools in coping with the after effects of war is knowing that there are others like him. He is not alone — they are not alone.
War and Therapy
Written by Paula J. Caplan
Directed by Aaron Frankel
Produced by Peter Standish Productions
Reviewed by Caitlin DeMerlis
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?