‘Ghosts of War’ paints too simplistic a portrait of one man’s military conflict

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Sam Krey in Griffin Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of “Ghosts of War.” | Evan Hanover

“Ghosts of War” might not intend to romanticize or glorify war — in fact, Ryan Smithson’s one-man tale of fighting in Iraq, adapted for the stage by Bill Massolia and starring Sam Krey as Smithson, comes out and says as much early in the production. But intent doesn’t always equal impact.

Directed by Jason Gerace, Smithson’s story is uniquely his own; there’s no reason to doubt he’s speaking his truth throughout “Ghosts of War.” But delivered by Krey, the monologue paints a picture that’s often overly simplistic at best: American troops are benevolent protectors whose sole aim was to protect innocent Iraqi youngsters and helpless villagers from the evils within their own country.

‘Ghosts of War’ ★★ When: Through May 6 Where: Griffin Theatre at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Tickets: $30, $27 vets, students, seniors Info: griffintheatre.com Run time: 75 minutes, with no intermission

At one point in his script, Smithson opines that “America had given up” and “that’s why the World Trade Center was allowed to fall.” Who gave up — and why they’re to blame for terrorists flying planes into buildings — is left unexamined. In Smithson’s account, going to war against Iraq is the righteously acceptable response to 9/11, a determination to make America safe again.

At another juncture, Krey-as-Smithson somberly states that “War is hell, but war is also paradise. War encompasses all that we are, all that we were, and all that we will be. I look at war, my war, and I see past the blood and guts and bullets and bombs.” Calling war any kind of paradise is the kind of myth-making that recruitment ads propagate. It doesn’t take into account that many involved in war don’t get past the bullets and the bombs. In this telling, the armed forces are about “saving the world, one child at a time.”

Under Gerace’s direction, Krey makes Smithson’s memories sound genuine, even when he’s spouting platitudes. He recalls the indelible experience of watching the World Trade Center towers fall as a 16-year-old, his drive to enlist at 19, and his quick wedding to a high school sweetheart before shipping out. He fashions himself as an “Everyman GI Joe” as he talks about the brutality of basic training (anyone who has seen “Full Metal Jacket” will recognize the dynamic at play between drill sergeant and new recruits), his deployment to the Middle East, and finally, his struggles to adjust after serving his tour.

Krey is an amiable performer with an easy charisma that serves the one-person show well. Massolia’s adaptation also benefits from Michael Stanfill’s video projections, which include moving images of the Towers falling and groups of Iraqi children, arms outstretched, palms open. Alan Donahue’s simple, effective set evokes canvas tents and gnarls of concertina wire, while Rachel Sypniewski’s clever costumes take Frey from civilian to soldier in the blink of an eye.

Running in repertory with “Letters Home,” “Ghosts of War” continues Griffin Theatre’s decades-long commitment to telling the story of veterans, in their own words. In its previous incarnations, “Letters Home” has been a powerful exploration of life during war. Together, “Letters” and “Ghosts” comprise a noble effort.

But “Ghosts” is all about stout-hearted American boys going proudly off to occupy a sovereign country without having the faintest idea what they’re actually fighting for or against. If you’re considering enlisting, “Ghosts of War” might convince you to do so. But good and bad are rarely this clear-cut. “Ghosts of War” reduces our involvement in Iraq to a celebration of benevolent machismo. There’s clearly more to it than that.

Catey Sullivan is a local free-lance writer.

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