It is a good bet you will find no unit in the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard that is any tougher, more disciplined, more cohesive or more concerned with protecting a fellow troop’s back than the actresses who have joined forces for Megan Carney’s play “Women at War,” now in its world premiere at Rivendell Theatre.
“WOMEN AT WAR”
When: Through Dec. 6
Where: Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge
Info: (773) 334-7728; www.RivendellTheatre.org
Run time: 85 minutes with no intermission
Carney’s riveting group portrait of those who now comprise 15 percent of America’s military — directed with steel and heart by Tara Mallen — is the culmination of four years of research and development. And although it unspools in just 85 airtight minutes, the play not only compresses all the major issues faced by women who go to war (in this case they are serving in Iraq), but never shortchanges the reality of their lives before, while and after they see action.
Carney captures the wide range of emotions that compel these very different women to assume all the challenges of the military in the first place; she moves with them as they arrive at base and charge into the intensity of a war zone at full blast, and she then follows them as they return home to face a world that in many ways seems alien and shallow.
The recruits, superbly played by Mary Cross, Krystel V. McNeil, Brittani Arlandis Green, Paula Ramirez, Charli Williams and Danielle Davis, are an eclectic group. Two of the women have left young children behind. One wanted to escape the violence of her Chicago neighborhood and ironically found only more violence. Another wanted to break free of a troubled marriage. A proudly athletic cheerleader from Indiana sensed she would thrive on the competition. Another woman, lured by a recruitment ad on TV, decided the military would be a lot more interesting than her assembly-line job in a diaper factory.
Part of the story is seen through the eyes of Col. Patricia Monroe (Rengin Altay), the no-nonsense “leader” who has seen six deployments all over the world. Though she initially joined the reserves for the scholarship money it would provide, she realized she had a natural gift for the work and thrived on the job.
Another part of the story is movingly chronicled by Davis, as a lesbian who suffers greatly under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, and who turns to blogging as a form of release. Some of the women talk about sexual assaults that go unpunished, but one woman delights in the male attention that comes her way even when she looks her worst.
Cynthia Hines plays the tough-as-nails drill sargeant, barking out orders with a voice and demeanor that could easily terrify the fittest, most confident recruit, but you see the transformation of the women and the pride they take in it. Susan Gaspar plays several characters on the sidelines, including a guilt-inducing mother-in-law and the nurse clearly charged with delaying and denying services to returned soldiers.
Of course not everyone comes home, and Carney punctuates the story with one brief but horrific patrol mission in which the driver of an armored vehicle is killed in a split second by an improvised explosive device.
Kristin Abhalter’s set (lit by Diane Fairchild, with sound by Victoria Deiorio) turns the stage into a vivid but minimalist environment. And the cast’s impressive physicality (many of the actresses whip off a good number of push-ups), emotional intimacy and winning ensemble spirit make them every bit the female equivalent of “Black Watch.” Comparison to that grand-scale Scottish production about male soldiers is no small compliment.