ReEntry, Emily Ackerman and K.J. Sanchez’s enthralling work currently gracing Urban Stages, is as relevant as a show can get. The play, culled from real-life interviews with many Marines, examines the difficulties involved in realigning to life in the States after serving overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it does so with no political judgment regarding the cause of such service. However, a show this well-honed would be a must-see at any time. Sanchez also directs ReEntry, following a successful run at Two River Theatre Company in Red Bank, New Jersey. Over the course of a year, she and Ackerman conducted interviews with war veterans and their families and shaped characters from these voices. This kind of testimony theater excels at being informative, even enlightening (i.e., Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s The Exonerated), but Sanchez’s adroit production goes one step further: it succeeds at finding the beating heart in this play’s narratives.
That’s precisely the key to ReEntry. Though these tales are hard-hitting (one voiceover recounts a father’s obsessive need to re-watch video news footage of an accident that took his son’s life), it finds just the right balance between dramatic entertainment and reportage. The stories are far too compelling to make us want to close our eyes or stop listening.
This is largely due in part to the show’s stellar quintet of actors who honor the servicemen and servicewoman sharing their stories. Joseph Harrell, acting as de facto narrator, plays the first character we meet. He’s a Marine Corps commanding officer who addresses us as though we are about to embark on a military detail of our own, lecturing on how in order to survive – and perhaps, take the lives of others – some mental re-wiring is required (if Harrell looks authentic, you’re onto something. In real life, he’s an erstwhile underwater Marine.) His performance is a beautiful embodiment of the dedication such a lifestyle demands.
Take, for example, the family of John (PJ Sosko) and Charlie (Bobby Moreno), both of whom saw combat overseas. Both find it immensely difficult to reset their mental clocks. Their mother (Sameera Luqmaan-Harris) and sister, Liz (Sheila Tapia), attempt to make sense of and justify their new temperaments. (Ackerman and Sanchez use this family as the home base for characters they introduce us to over the course of the evening.)
Mom also crosses a line, conducting a relationship with a soldier, Tommy, who was blinded in an accident that Charlie was lucky enough to survive. Luqmaan-Harris and Sosko also play Maria and Pete, a Marine family. Maria goes to great lengths to explain that they are a team unit – while she keeps the home fires burning and Pete fights, the suffering, fear and pride are equally shared at all times.
There is no single inherent dramatic conflict moving ReEntry along, at least not for those only inured to standard Aristotelian structure. Rather, each tale offers its own sense of heartbreak and emotional struggle. And in the aggregate, these individual stories add up to something much greater.
ReEntry addresses what these Marines have seen in the Middle East and also what they must react to upon the return to a “normal” life. Of course, there are problems waiting for them back on home turf as well. Charlie finds that his girlfriend has been cheating on him, and John is a powder-keg, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with no tolerance for the minutiae in which “civilians” get wrapped up. Moreno is a skilled performer, using great subtlety to distinguish between Charlie, a born follower, and Tommy, a natural leader. Sosko is outstanding, particularly in portraying John’s difficulty keeping his fury on a leash.
The women of ReEntry are not to be overlooked either. Luqmaan-Harris makes each of her characters unique and believable, and Tapia comes the closest to hitting Everywoman status. Their naturalistic work is endearing, and in the show’s greatest moments, riveting. Zach Williamson’s sound design and Marion Williams spare art direction also add to the show’s you-are-there effectiveness.
ReEntry is a work you won’t soon forget. There’s a word for a work this important, and it is one that applies to the play’s subject just as much: heroic.