I mostly love the works brought to DC by The Kennedy Center’s World Stages. I love the sub-genre of one-person shows. I also take a serious interest and have been involved in working with the area’s community of military veterans. So I was disappointed that Heroine left me cold.
Writer Mary Jane Wells had not decided, it seems, if this was primarily a therapeutic vehicle or a work of theatre. As therapy, it was in the wrong venue, and that mattered terribly. It should have felt immersive, with the audience becoming participants surrounding and supporting her and each other. Instead, Wells, who also performed the piece, seemed lost on the Family Theater’s cavernous stage, and it was like watching something through the wrong end of a telescope.
Heroine depicts the story of Donna Davis, a gay woman who suffered discrimination for both those identities during her service in the U. S. military and who was also a victim of rape. She had to continue to serve with the men who had violated her, and with one in particular. I have heard enough from female war veterans to know these events were far from unique to Davis, but that makes it all the more terrible and more important a story to bring to light.
I was made aware of the artiness of lighting choices by designer George Tarbuck, who captured the harrowing true events by isolating Wells in oblong, squared-off shafts of light. I could only wonder why he was “boxing” her in coffins. I also did not understand the reason why the first few minutes seemed to be a series of on-and-off “snapshots” with Wells’ signaling the lights by snapping her fingers.
I was also uncomfortable with Wells’ almost gleeful self-congratulations in showing how “prepared” she was, having called for “back up” specialists post-show, who were there to serve as therapeutic support for any audience members who might be “triggered” by events portrayed. This kind of convergence seems to be an ever more prevalent occurrence in theatres partnering with community organizations specializing in social work. While I am sensitive to the need for support systems, frankly here it felt self-conscious and even inappropriate in the Kennedy Center.
I have seen one-man and one-woman shows that deliver powerful stories on stage. Cliff Cardinal’s Huff, which just played in this year’s World Stages festival was superb and a case in point. Henry Naylor’s plays, such as Borders and Angel, which have played in some of the same circles as Wells’ work, have proved thrilling stage experiences and worthy vehicles to give dramatic voice to female victims of war.
What I did not experience were moments of dramatic authenticity – stateside in Oklahoma with Davis’s family who were never being able to come to terms with her sexual orientation, not in the details of serving on a base in Germany, nor moments on the battlefields – including her personal one being cornered and brutalized by male soldiers with whom she was serving and when together they came under fire. Somewhere in the smoke of war, she kills a ten-year old enemy and somewhere else she has to carry a male soldier to safety (and yes, this was the same man who had led the rape.) There is also a love story woven into the fabric of the piece. Even if intentional, it was not helpful that everything ran together.
World Stages: Heroine closes February 14, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
I wanted to learn more about the character’s coming to terms with, first, a war-time relationship and then the death of the woman she loved. Another most interesting scene fragment was how the rapist was emotionally scarred by his actions much later and how the central character might have been affected or even changed. But then that thread was dropped. The dramatic journey was unclear. Opportunities for complexity were lost.
Wells’ delivery was fast and mostly on one vocal level. The performance itself became an assault. Director Susan Worsfold, who has an impressive resume including vocal work, did not manage to encourage her actress in vocal variety nor support Wells from tightening her larynx into a tight unpleasant squawk at key emotional moments.
The evening felt neither therapeutic nor dramatically satisfying.
HEROINE. Written and Performed by Mary Jane Wells. Directed by Susan Worsfold. Sound Design by Matthew Padden. Lighting Design by George Tarbuck. Produced by Sarah Gray. Presented by the John F. Kennedy Center as part of World Stages. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.