‘Silent’ is the description collectively assigned to the cast of characters in Linda Escalera Baggs’ play about military wives, but throughout its seventy-five minute running time, it was the word ‘trapped’ that most frequently snuck its way onto my notepad. The play’s cast of women, each of whom reveal their own unsettling secrets as they wait for their husbands’ fighter jets to return home, appear to be confined to the point of hopelessness—inside their marriages, inside lives that lack grounding and agency, and inside the paradigms of the small, unchanging set. The premise of Silent Heroes is rich with tension: one of six fighter planes has crashed just moments before the play opens, but it’s not yet clear whose husband has perished in the accident. Bracing for heartbreak, the group collects into an underground room at the base to wait. A sense of dutiful camaraderie is obvious between the six women, but each of their attempts to remain calm in the face of death causes underlying conflicts within the group to burst onto the surface. In a situation such as this, is it possible to not secretly wish for the death of a friend’s husband?
Silent Heroes is a success, thanks largely to its affecting premise, its bouncy, entertaining dialogue and its strong performances. Baggs’ attempt to give all six women a moment to share their individual traumas feels too calculated at times, but outstanding performances across the board allow the narrative to maintain its momentum.
Set in the 1970s, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, Silent Heroes brings a notably diverse group of individuals onto the stage, highlighting the circumstantial quality of their bond. Be it not for the fact that their husbands are pilots, these women, different in backgrounds, ages and worldviews, would have been unlikely to have established such an intimate rapport with one another.
The most obvious standout from the group is young Miranda (Sarah Saunders), whose politically rebellious background is a topic of debate and discomfort within the group. Patsy (Julie Jesneck), meanwhile, is quickly established as the wife with the most outward and immediate struggles—she’s the only wife not looking forward to her husband’s return. Jesneck’s performance is difficult to watch, but for all the right reasons; her instinct to make excuses for her aggression-prone husband and avoid eye contact as she explains her choices is likely to ring authentic to anyone who has ever confronted a friend in an abusive relationship.
Rosalie Tenseth as Eleanor, the most outspoken member of the group, is also a joy to watch and delivers the funniest lines of the production, but it’s Kelly Ann Moore as her best friend June who is most likely to inspire chills in her audience. Because she is the most nurturing and least confrontational member of this collective, her eventual burst of anger is genuinely shocking, and Moore delivers this punch with a fearless sense of emotional wisdom. It’s a controlled performance that’s difficult to shake.
The set, designed by Nick Francone, adds to the necessary sense of claustrophobia. Furnished with a worn couch, a modest coffee station and photos of soldiers on the back wall, the room is appropriately void of spirit. During the second half of the play, when the six characters take turns stepping onto a chair and peering through a small, rectangular window near the ceiling, their sense of entrapment becomes all the more pronounced. The fate of their invisible husbands will define their destinies, and one gets the sense that ‘Silent Heroes’ is, quite literally, their only moment in the spotlight.