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A Heartbeat to Baghdad
Glyn O'Malley's A Heartbeat to Baghdad, which is currently being given a limited run at the Flea Theater, is as close to representing a less often espoused constituency as any play I've seen. It doesn't paint a pretty picture of the current war. Nor does it sing the present administration's praises.
O'Malley's aim was not to take issue with or protest the Iraq war but to tell the stories of a cross section of American soldiers who went to Iraq and returned and in doing so to pay tribute to what he describes as their "integrity, self-sacrifice and genuine heroism." Yet, while O'Malley has stated that his aim is to honor the warriors, not the wars they fight which he personally finds horrifying, his play is likely to strike anyone strongly opposed to the Iraq conflict we're embroiled in as tilting off center and towards the right. Such viewers might also wish the author had incorporates some remarks from General Zinni the former Marine commander who has been vociferous in his disapproval of the operation.
A remark by a character named JD (Phyllis Somerville) will do little to diminish the anti-administration audience members' sense about too much flag waving. JD is a general's wife who's active in the Family Readiness Group program (FRG). She's one of those crusty, Southern charmers you can't help liking. You can't really fault her mission to provide a warm welcome to every soldier returning from foreign soil to avoid a repeat of the scorn that her husband faced upon his return from Vietnam. However, when she uses her pull to cut through some red tape to expedite her therapist friend Claire's (Gloria Reuben) work with FRG and Claire jokingly asks if she's the new Secretary of Defense, JD is quick to retort "No, we have a perfectly good one." Clearly, here is a character, who like others we meet, has always supported whatever war the country's Commander-in-Chief and his associates decide demands the ultimate sacrifice.
The script was developed from a series of interviews with soldiers and family members of the 101st Airborne Division who participated in Operation Iraqui Freedom. While this background is presented with authenticity by the Flea's artistic director, the play is not a documentary. The characters are fictional and the playwright has created the psychotherapist (Claire) as an outsider (and stand-in for himself) wanting to better understand the military community of her hometown-- Clarksville, Tennessee.
Simpson has staged the play with great style. Two simple props, wooden backboard depicting the American and Iraq locale where the various characters' stories will unfold -- with a uniformed soldier (Tim Hoey) marching on stage at the beginning of each act and taking his place at the drum which strikingly accompanies some of the stories. The fourteen actors are all on stage throughout the two hours When not front and center, the actors sit silently at either side of the playing area.
From JD's greeting the latest returnees from Operation Iraqui to Claire's final expression of gratitude to all the soldiers of the 101st whose pain and heroism she's come to admire, we hear some harrowing re-enactment of the Iraq experience and its effect on the soldiers' homecoming (whether emotionally conflicted or in a casket) on their families.
The performances are first rate. Phyllis Somerville is a standout as the "three-star" wife of the four-star general. Kristin Stewart Chase as another long-time army wife, embodies every widow who has stood bravely at her husband's graveside, a child's hand clasped in hers. Gordon Holmes and Christian Baskous render particularly effective portraits of two troubled soldiers.
While not quite the four handkerchief heartbreaker as the recent HBO program of excerpts from fallen soldiers' letters, Heartbeat from Iraq is a timely and often moving drama. In a season awash in solo play, seeing this refreshingly robust cast is well worth the bargain-priced cost of admission.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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