Within the last 24 hours, the last American combat troops left Iraq. Today, Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble’s War Cycle begins reviving two dramas that it created in reaction to the Iraq War. Then, on Saturday, like the American military itself, the ensemble will shift its focus to Afghanistan.
Actually, the subjects of the first two plays of the War Cycle trilogy have always been the physical and psychological carnage created by the war, more than the war itself. Play #1, Wounded, is set in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and examines Americans who had been injured in the war — and their families. The second play, originally titled Survived, looks at the effects of a soldier’s death on his widow, parents, siblings and a former war comrade in Marin County.
Both of those plays are being revived this week. Wounded will open tonight at the ensemble’s regular haunt, the Powerhouse in Santa Monica. The play formerly known as Survived, now called Nation of Two, is scheduled to return on Friday.
The ensemble is slated to move on to more current affairs on Saturday. The new Gospel According to First Squad is set among a group of American warriors in Afghanistan in 2009. The initial production of Gospel is an in-progress workshop. The script might change during the course of the four-weekend run. So the ensemble isn’t asking for reviews yet, but the public is invited to watch and possibly provide feedback.
Wounded was the play that put the ensemble on the L.A. theatrical map. It opened in 2006 and was revived in 2007. After seeing it in its second run, I wrote (in the late LA CityBeat) that it was “the most wrenching play I’ve seen about our Iraqi misadventures” — and I had seen quite a few by 2007. Mayank Keshaviah, in the LA Weekly, wrote that the play “quickly finds its target, taking us deeply into the troubled psyches of veterans.” “This production takes no prisoners,” wrote Madeleine Shaner in Backstage. “Strong language, deeply emotional situations and visceral performances combine to make this a thinking and a feeling person’s play.”
Tom Burmester, who received an MFA degree at UCLA in 2004, is artistic director of the ensemble, which was formed mostly from the ranks of fellow UCLA grads. He recalls that as the group started looking for contemporary subjects to dramatize, its members noticed “this huge glaring thing” — that the ongoing wars “didn’t seem to have any impact on our daily lives,” unless someone happened to be personally associated with one of the all-volunteer soldiers.
Noticing that the ranks of the wounded were much larger than the numbers killed — but generally received less media attention — Burmester arranged to interview some of the wounded at Walter Reed.
He spent two days talking to three wounded veterans in particular: Joe Dan Worley (no, not Jo Anne Worley), Jason Pepper and Tammy Duckworth (who later narrowly lost a bid for Congress and became the VA’s Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs.) They inspired the three main characters in the play, although Burmester emphasizes that the characters are fictional.
Ensemble improvs helped create the original one-act, which had a single performance at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica in July 2005, a workshop in Davis (where Burmester grew up and attended college) and eight performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Burmester re-wrote the play into two acts for a 2006 run at the Powerhouse. But Wounded attracted the most attention during its 2007 revival, which followed on the heels of a Washington Post exposé of problems at Walter Reed. “I sense,” says Burmester, “that most people don’t want to see a war play. They say, ‘I can just turn on the news’.” But the scandal “got them more interested.”
By the time Wounded was revived, the ensemble had decided to create more war plays — perhaps one a year. But the first such effort, A Song For My Brother, has yet to be produced. Although it was ostensibly about a band that was formed among soldiers in Iraq — until one of the members decides to re-enlist — Burmester says the play was too much “a metaphor for what we were going through as an ensemble” and lacked a powerful “dedication and journey,” attributes he considers essential.
The second play, Survived, didn’t open until 2009. It could never be accused of lacking “dedication and journey.” It was inspired by the story of Mark Daily, a former Irvine resident and UCLA grad who was killed in Iraq in early 2007. Burmester first heard about Daily from a November 2007 article by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair. Hitchens wrote about how he had reacted to the news — as reported by Teresa Watanabe in the L.A. Times — that Daily’s decision to enlist for service in Iraq had been influenced by Hitchens’ early pro-war essays.
Burmester interviewed Daily’s young widow and met other members of his family, but again — the characters are fictional, he says. As the writing of the play went on, he showed Daily’s widow some of the drafts and “there were a few things she wasn’t OK with.” This delayed the production a few months “in order to work though those issues” – and Burmester started interviewing others whose family members had been deployed or killed in Iraq. When the play finally opened, however, Daily’s widow saw it three times and brought her mother to see it.
Behind-the-scenes stories from Survived are almost as dramatic as the play. Burmester was having problems casting the roles of the slain man’s parents. Danika Sudik — who had joined the company to appear in a revival of the original Spring Awakening and who was co-directing Survived — suggested that her parents, veteran actors and liberal-leaning Dee Sudik and James Sudik, might be interested.
But the senior Sudiks weren’t interested in the play only for professional reasons. A few weeks earlier, they had been suddenly informed by their son, then-21-year-old Josef, that he had joined the Army and was on his way to Iraq. “It sent shock waves through my family,” says his sister Danika.
Dee Sudik “was gung-ho” about doing the play, says Danika, but James Sudik “took a bit of arm-twisting” before agreeing to perform. During the run, with his son in Iraq, James “hung up my brother’s infantryman creed in his dressing room,” reports Danika. “It ended up being a comforting experience, paying homage to the people who make this enormous sacrifice. It helped us work through the things we were scared about.”
Meanwhile, because of a chapter from her own life, Danika empathized with the soldier’s widow — particularly what happens “after someone passes, and how complicated the ownership of memories becomes” when other survivors have their own memories. Danika has a daughter whose father was killed in an outbreak of gang violence, when the girl was two — and when Danika was still a good friend of the young man (they probably would have become reconciled as a romantic couple, she says). The relationship with his family, after his death, “was a tightrope,” Danika says, but she remains on an “in-law” status with them, years later: “They’re a very important part of my family.”
Although Burmester “was very attached” to the title Survived, he says, other ensemble members felt the title “did not frame the story or sell the play,” especially because it didn’t evoke the romance of the widow’s relationship with her husband. Burmester looked through the script for something that might do that. The result is that the play is now titled Nation of Two. It’s a phrase that the soldier and his wife had adopted as their own, after they read it in a Kurt Vonnegut book that had been assigned in the literature class where they met.
Danika Sudik is not only co-directing Nation of Two, but she is also acting in Wounded and co-directing the new Gospel According to First Squad. After two plays set on the home front, “we started to feel there was a void” in not examining conditions among the Americans overseas, Burmester says. Furthermore, “we’re trying to deal with issues that are in that moment” –0 which translated to a desire to set the next play in Afghanistan.
It would be difficult and expensive to do research there, but Burmester turned to Veterans for Rethinking Afghanistan, an organization of vets who are opposed to continuing the war. He primarily interviewed Jake Diliberto and Devon Reid from the group. John Brooks, an actor with experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is playing a role in the revival of Wounded and also has served as a sounding board in the research for Gospel According to First Squad.
The new play will feature a character, Sgt. Taylor, who continues from Nation of Two –the first such direct link between any of the plays. After attending the service for his fallen friend from the Iraq war — in Nation of Two — Taylor is redeployed to Afghanistan, where he re-appears in Gospel According to First Squad.
Jonathan Redding, who plays Sgt. Taylor, says he is “incredibly excited to explore him in his element. He was an interloper in the second play, profoundly uncomfortable and off-balance.” Redding was worried that he hadn’t covered enough dimensions of Taylor in the second play, but the third play allows him to fill in the brush strokes.
The War Cycle in its entirety is trying to reflect “the moral complexity” of the wars, Redding says, rather than making a more simplistic political statement. He likens the goal to Hamlet’s famous “hold…the mirror up to nature” advice: “We’re examining the wars from a perspective of the cost and damage. People struggle with the subject because the toll is terrible, regardless of one’s [political] affiliations.”
“Everyone is antiwar, unless you’re a sociopath,” concurs Burmester. “If we make it too antiwar, we’re preaching to the choir. Conservatives have seen the plays and feel it represents their perspective — and also challenges it. Some of the artists see it as a protest, but others see it as paying respects, and others see it as telling a story. I hope it has all of these.”
Burmester, 37, brings some of this passion for balanced explanations to his regular job as performance manager for Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. He created a “concierge” program there, in which staffers not only provide information and conversation about parking and restaurants but also about the plays themselves. The program recently was successfully tested at the CTG’s Taper, in the recent production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, says a CTG spokesman.
Will someone from CTG come to see the War Plays? Burmester hopes so. He would love to see the plays reach a larger audience than is available at the 75-seat Powerhouse in runs of only three performances a week for only four weeks (or only one performance per week per play, in the case of the War Cycle).
However, thanks to his CTG job, he’s well aware that his cycle isn’t the only trilogy out there examining these subjects. Among others, Jessica Goldberg’s play Body Politic was also set at Walter Reed (it played the Zephyr in an Echo Theater production two years ago), and her newer Just War is based on the true story of a Van Nuys soldier who died in Iraq in 2007 and his journals that he was writing in a collaboration with his father.
Burmester talked to Goldberg when Just War received a reading at the Douglas last November. “But I didn’t want to say that ‘I’ve got my own war cycle’,” so he didn’t mention it.
May I make a suggestion to the powers that be? I didn’t run this by Burmester, but I saw both Wounded and Body Politic, and they’re sufficiently different from each other that they shouldn’t cancel each other out. Wounded is more in-your-face; Body Politic is more roundabout in its approach. It would be interesting to see these, as well as others, side by side in a festival of plays about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Grant writers, start your engines.
Wounded: Aug. 19, 27, Sept. 3 and 9; 8 pm.
Nation of Two: Aug. 20 and 26, Sept. 4 and 10; 8 pm.
Gospel According to First Squad workshop: Aug. 21 and 28, Sept. 2; 8 pm.
All three plays on Sept. 11:Â Wounded at 1 pm, Nation of Two at 4:30 pm, Gospel According to First Squad, 8 pm.
Gospel According to First Squad and Survived photos by Melissa Snyder and Jeremy Roush of Vibble.
Wounded photo by Eric Ancker.