Summer months are generally filled with musicals and light-hearted comedies, but Premiere Stages goes against the grain with the New Jersey premiere of “Soldier’s Heart.” It’s a play by Tammy Ryan that deals with the emotional roller coaster ride of Casey Johnson, an American soldier who leaves her son behind to head off for war in Iraq. When she returns home after a nine-month tour, she discovers that it’s not that easy to return to the life she once knew.
War stories often present emotional and psychological insights into the human condition; however, few are told from the female perspective. The addition of sexual assault makes this a truly powerful, and even more timely, story — the third from Ryan to be presented by Premiere Stages.
“Tammy Ryan is a good fit for Premiere Stages because we both focus on plays that are topical,” explained John Wooten, Producing Artistic Director of Premiere Stages, who is directing the production. “She presents very challenging work. Her characters are always at a position where the stakes are very high and the questions of ‘why now’ and the ‘what if’ of human nature are fully explored.”
Previously, Premiere Stages produced Ryan’s “Dark Part of the Forest” in 2006 and “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods” in 2010. Both plays had their world premiere at Premiere Stages and were subsequently published.
“Soldier’s Heart” begins in September 2006 on the day Casey is about to ship out. She arrives in Iraq during some of the heaviest fighting of the war and returns in the summer of 2007, just before the surge takes place. Her son, Sean, is 10 when she leaves him. While in Iraq, she encounters an incident with a boy about Sean’s age. She is never fully able to reconcile what happens and that pain comes home with her.
Wooten describes the play as “a powerful and moving exploration of a female Marine’s difficult re-entry into civilian society. The task of seeking assistance from a disinterested V.A. and an insulated chain of command makes her journey particularly challenging.”
Before the war, Casey was always the one in charge in her family. While away, her ex-husband, Kevin, is called upon to help take care of Sean with the help of Casey’s mother. He goes from a guy that sees his son every two weeks to one raising him. Together, they are forced to deal with responsibilities that threaten to overwhelm them while working full-time and struggling financially. Both expect things to return to normal when Casey comes home, but that doesn’t happen.
“When Casey gets back, she has no interest in seeing her son and no interest in contributing,” said Wooten. “She is basically just shut down. Everything that happened to her in Iraq is brought back with her. She didn’t leave any of it there.”
One reviewer said, “This is not an easy play to watch and it is not meant to be.” Wooten agrees, but says that Tammy’s writing is so strong that it lures the audience to invest in the story and really care about the characters. They are ready to take this difficult journey with her, partly because the play deals with a subject that is, once again, back in the news.
According to Wooten, Premiere Stages likes to partner with groups and organizations that deal with similar issues as the plays they present. In this case, they are working with Safe Horizon, an organization that touches the lives of over 250,000 children, adults, and families affected by crime and abuse — including sexual assault — throughout New York City each year.
Kate Krug, Safe Horizon’s Director of Special Events, will join Resident Dramaturg Clare Drobot for a free post-show discussion following the matinee of Soldier’s Heart on Sunday, July 20; an additional post-show discussion will feature April Tully, LCSW (Sunday, July 27) whose areas of special expertise include sexual trauma, post-traumatic-stress disorder, and addictions.
The cast includes Kim Zimmer, a four-time Emmy Award winner for her role as Reva Shayne on “Guiding Light,” Benton Greene (who has appeared on television’s “Gossip Girl,” “Blue Bloods,” and “Law & Order”), Erica Camarano (recently seen on television in “Hostages” and “Unforgettable”), Michael Colby Jones (who recently finished a run in the Off-Broadway hit “It’s Just Sex!” at the Actors Temple Theatre), Azlan Landry (currently seen in Disney’s XD’s “Laugh Your Butt Off” commercial campaign), Zane King Beers (who appeared in Lincoln Center’s recent production of “Macbeth”), and Landon Woodson (whose many regional credits include the Chautauqua Theater Company).
It’s a huge undertaking for any actor to be on stage the entire time. The most important thing is for her to play one moment at a time, said Wooten. “She just needs to focus on being in the moment and playing it from action to action to action rather than think about being on stage for the entire time… To think of it as a series of sprints, rather than a marathon.”
Thankfully, for Mairin Lee and the audience, there is a brief intermission. It allows the actress to take a breath and allows the audience to process what they’ve just seen. War may be hell, but sometimes coming home can be even worse. If you’re looking for a play that will really engage you on many levels, don’t miss “Soldier’s Heart.”
“Soldier’s Heart” runs July 10-27 at the Zella Fry Theatre, Vaughn Eames Hall at Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ. Performances are Thursday, Friday & Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday at 3 p.m. Note: For more information visit http://www.kean.edu/premierestages.