by Tom Burmester and The L.A. Theatre Ensemble
Powerhouse Theatre - May 4, 2007
Live Review by Adam McKibbin
Photograph of Emily Rose (as Beth) by Eric Ancker
Mention that you’re going to spend an evening watching a play and a typical response is “What’s it about?” In the case of The Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble’s Wounded, the answer is, essentially, “It’s a drama about amputee soldiers at Walter Reed trying to reconcile their past and acclimate themselves to the future.” The typical conclusion to this conversation is that you, the theatergoer, are a masochist. Let’s be honest: most people don’t pay attention to the actual problems facing our actual soldiers, let alone fictionalized war narratives. But the stories and issues addressed in Wounded are the sort that demand attention; in a better world, they’d be mandatory ingestions before the diversionary candy of Spiderman 3 and the like.
To be fair, Wounded hasn’t gone unnoticed by the viewing public, which is why it’s back in Santa Monica after a successful run in the spring of 2006. The action is set at Fisher House, a rehab home at the now-infamous Walter Reed Army Medical Center—and based (to a fictionalized extent) on the actual stories of three soldiers who wound up there: Navy Corpsman Joe Dan Worley, Sgt. Jason Pepper and Major Tammy Duckworth (who almost became Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth last November).
Pieced together collectively by the Ensemble – with founder Tom Burmester receiving “lead writer” credit – Wounded ambitiously attempts to delve into both the personal crossroads faced by these soldiers and the political issues that are inseparable from the war. The execution is clumsier on the latter point, focusing on a single issue-oriented scene that poses the question of “Is The War Justified?” and assigns (or perhaps reflects) jaded but elementary viewpoints to the male soldiers and counterpunches with a wounded soldier’s girlfriend who summarizes a few anti-war talking points.
Much more affecting are the personal dynamics between the characters; the Big Picture is almost too big for a play to wrap its arms around, and the Ensemble is so conscientious about not making a political statement that it seems almost too point/counterpoint, point/counterpoint in its structure. Fortunately, the bulk of the play focuses on the individual, and the heartbreaking, life-changing decisions that these young soldiers and their families are facing after a war gone horribly wrong.
At the heart of the story are Doc (Albert Meijer) and Ellen (Morgan Early). Doc has turned to online gaming as a refuge from his newly wheelchair-bound life, and harbors a dark secret about his time in Iraq that he can’t even tell to his wife, Ellen, who has loyally stood by his side but has begun to wonder how much she can rightfully be expected to sacrifice. Early is especially convincing in scenes where she covets the freedom presented to the girlfriend of a comatose soldier, who plans on fleeing the scene before her lover ever wakes up—or in case he never does. Meijer is particularly fine in a scene in which he confronts his demons in a flashback, and rises again to the challenge of divulging his secret, but has that later scene derailed by needlessly Theatre-With-A-Capital-T staging in which two characters in separate scenes on separate ends of the stage shout over each other.
The biggest revelation of Wounded is the character of Beth, based on the most compelling real-life account—a Blackhawk pilot who loses her legs and still wants to fly again—and brought masterfully to life by Emily Rose, who gives a nuanced and understated performance. While her co-stars occasionally lapsed into stilted stage voices and mannerisms, Rose remained grounded throughout, expressing her character’s torment and wisdom without once forcing it through a megaphone.
Wounded marks the first installment of The L.A. Theatre Ensemble’s War Cycle, which they plan on expanding each year that the U.S. remains at war. The next piece, A Song for My Brother, is set to premiere in August and, given the group’s track record, promises to again be ambitious and admirable in scope.
The Island (L.A. Theatre Ensemble)
More by this writer:
Taking the Jesus Pill
Peace Takes Courage - Interview
Howard Zinn - Readings from Voices of A People's History of the United States [DVD]