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A CurtainUp Review

A Heartbeat to Baghdad

Most of the problems I see in my usual practice are people creating drama in their lives to divert themselves from getting on with life. But actual drama IS life for these Army men and women. It's . . . EPIC. . .It's sometimes shock; it's sometimes plain old awe
--- Claire the psychotherapist who works with a "Family Readiness Group" dealing with problems associated with soldiers returning to family life.
Last year the Drama Desk, an organization of theater critics and journalists, hosted a panel on political theater. This season, a follow-up panel billed as Theater at War focused on plays dealing with war. The panelists and the plays discussed reflected the theater community's fairly across the board liberal viewpoint-- which translates into anti-war, generally, and the Iraq War specifically. The question did come up as to why no plays ever seemed to represent the conservative or Middle America view but nothing came of it. The reason: a lack of examples and interest. Political theater to most people translated as protests against those in power.

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.

A Heartbeat to Baghdad
Written by Glyn O’Malley
Directed by Jim Simpson
Cast: Gloria Reuben, Phyllis Somerville, Christian Baskous, Steven Rishard; also Kristin Stewart Chase, Joanie Ellen, Gordon Holmes, Joe Holt, Jace Maclean, David Marcus, Alfredo Narsico and Irene Walsh
Drums: Tim Hoey
Set Design and Lighting Design: Kyle Chepulis
Costume Design: Melissa Schlactmeyer
Sound Design: Jeremy Wilson
Performances November 1, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23 at 7PM. Matinees will be played on November 13 & 20 at 3PM.
Running time: 2 hours, plus 10-min intermission
Flea Theater, 41 White Street (Broadway/Church, 3 blocks south of Canal in Tribeca). 212-352-3101,
From 10/31/04 to 11/20/04.
Performances November 1, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23 at 7PM. Matinees will be played on November 13 & 20 at 3PM.
Tickets, $15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/13/04 performance
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