nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 20, 2008
One of the sentences from last week's Presidential Debate that hasn't gotten much attention is this one, uttered by Barack Obama: "No U.S. soldier ever dies in vain because they're carrying out the missions of their commander in chief." The tens of thousands of troops who are or have been on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan in our two current wars don't ever seem to make it onto the news unless they die. Yvonne Latty's book In Conflict, which has been dramatized by adapter/director Douglas C. Wager, makes some of these young men and women real to us, and reminds us how truly ignored/forgotten our veterans really are once they come home.
This is, I think, essential viewing in this election year, because it shines a light on an issue that is enormously important even though it doesn't touch most Americans as directly as the grave economic problems we now face. Though Latty and Wager don't play politics in this work, there's an anti-war message within it that's loud and clear and that needs to be listened to: the world is getting more dangerous, not less, and so every opportunity for us to look these recent vets straight in the eye—many of them damaged physically and almost all damaged emotionally—is an opportunity for us to remember what is always wrought whenever nations go to war.
Latty interviewed many Iraqi War veterans for her book; 17 of their stories are recounted in this play. They pretty much cover the spectrum in every way—from Ty Simmons, a Vietnam vet who was called to serve in Iraq at the age of 53, to Darryl Anderson, who went AWOL after his first tour of duty; from Tracy Ringo, a doctor who spent three months in Iraq, to Julius Tulley, a Native American who can't get the medical attention he requires on the Navajo Reservation where he lives.
We also meet several disabled vets, and their stories of trying to continue lives without arms and/or legs are both inspiring and harrowing. Perhaps most moving of all is the case of Harold Noel, a young African American from the Bronx who is now homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol after nearly a year of service in Iraq. After he describes to us one of the horrifying events he witnessed in the war, he says:
I gave up my soul.
Know I'm sayin' I gave up my-my-my
state of the way I think.
I came back an amputee,
but you can't see my amputation.
You feel me.
My amputation is up here---
and nobody can give that back to me-
can't nobody give me a prosthetic mind or whatever.
It's probably worth noting here that all of the monologues that comprise In Conflict are in the soldiers' own words, and though Wager surrounds them (perhaps unnecessarily) with dramatic transitions and occasional video interjections from Lally herself, this documentary play derives almost all of its enormous power from its authenticity. The play is performed by 11 young actors, most of whom are current students or recent graduates of Temple University. Their excellent work belies their relative inexperience; particularly standing out in the strong ensemble are Sean Lally, who plays two different characters, one a Mexican American, the other a young California man who lost an arm in a Humvee explosion; Danielle Pinnock, who portrays a badly scarred (psychologically) Army Reserves Sergeant from Oklahoma; Stan Demidoff, who shines as a Russian immigrant who speaks with pride about how President Bush visited him at Walter Reed Medical Center; and Damon Williams, who plays a New Yorker who lost one leg and the use of the other after an IED exploded under his vehicle, as well as the aforementioned Harold Noel.
One of the things I looked for in my program after In Conflict was over was some resources to learn more about veterans' issues—in particular, some information about where each of the Presidential candidates stand on them. I was surprised that The Culture Project failed to provide this for us, but my research has yielded a couple of interesting websites. Iraq Veterans Against the War has a clear anti-war agenda. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is a non-partisan, nonprofit action fund; IAVA has rated members of Congress in terms of their responsiveness to veteran's issues (Obama has a B+, McCain has a D). Check them out and also check out In Conflict, for a valuable look at a group of people who deserve much better than they've gotten.