War is a difficult thing to understand, let alone encapsulate no matter which military conflict is the focus. This is probably why each generation has seen its share of movies exploring war, its heroes, its casualties on the battlefield (and at home) and its paradigm which sends strangers on a journey that brings them out the other end as something we have yet to find a word for, so “brothers” tends to suffice.
As society and even combat itself evolves it leaves it almost impossible to weave a parallel between, let’s say, a WWII Vet and a Vietnam Vet. But what hasn’t changed is the core of the men who fight to defend their country: there are stories attached to each soldier who serves, there are hidden injuries that destroy families who appear whole and subtle innuendos that tie these men to each other that outsiders can never understand. When these “outsiders” turn out to be their own families, well … then the conflict to home can almost do more damage than any tour of duty.
In Jeffrey Skinner’s new play, Down Range (directed by Trish Minskoff and playing at Theater 3) we get a very intimate picture of two couples whose stories are told in a series of flashbacks as one soldier, Frank, (Bob Celli) escorts the body of his long time friend, Doc (Thaddeus Daniels) back home to his widow Eva (Tracy Weller) for burial. Frank’s wife, Beth (Rachel Parker), is left to wait behind and deal with the grief of her long time friend on her own.
In intimate moments of flashback that span 20 years, we see the two couples evolve not only as friends but as spouses; we watch as they spend long months apart, go through endless movings and uprootings, dreams they can’t see realized because the execution of projects as simple as giving army brats cameras (to photograph what they see, what they live, what they don’t understand, what frightens them) would be going against military rules, and days that can’t be talked about except in the broadest of terms so as not to inadvertently leak classified information.
By starting off the couples, and the friendship, in the idealized bubbling joys of youth when everything is possible, Skinner is able to plant subtle clues along the way. He shows us uncomfortable moments of miscommunication and happy afternoons that abruptly sour in order to show the progression of not just a marriage (or marriages) but the nuance of how marrying into the military can mean never really getting the time to know the person you married. As the years pass, during a time when a relationship would normally deepen and grow, we notice that Frank and Beth never settling into that comfortable camaraderie that is so obvious and true - the relationship that comes so easily when Frank and Doc are in their element together. In one poignant moment Beth begs for a conversation from Frank with the bracing statement “If you die, I’ll want to know what to say in front of your coffin …” she begs for clues to who they are as a couple so that she’ll be able to tell people at the (imagined) funeral “who we were together“.
It is at this moment that you realize that being married to a military man is more like navigating through shrapnel, trying to join up the shards of something that you wanted to be whole but which winds up existing in your life as a scattered spray of fragments, and bringing more hurt and damage than joy because each shard is encoded with the DNA of combat. When Beth notes in one flashback that Frank has been away for 40 months of their five year marriage you realize they’re more strangers than spouses.
The soldier will talk about how the images he sees are indelible, how you “can’t delete it once it’s in your head” but Down Range deals with what isn’t seen, what can’t be seen, and what the men shield from their loved ones. For Frank, however, combat is almost a zen space for him ”When boots hit the ground everything disappears” … and he describes the schizophrenic mindset of a soldier ” … you go to protect these people, but you begin to pull away from these people“.
Down Range explores how war is subtractive in ways which the uninitiated can only begin to imagine, and how military life can take a life even while the person still lives. Doc’s wife Ava, who seems to be less destroyed by her marriage and her military life, is resolute and resigned. Beth, on the other hand, rails her fist at the existence that robs her talented husband – who initially joined the army to foster his writing career and fodder a novel – of his passion for writing, and robs her of her own dancing career, and a half dozen other little grassroots projects which never seem to gain momentum before it’s time to move on to another base. When Beth learns that Frank has re-upped for 3 more years without even consulting her she screams “Just kill me! You wanna kill me! You want me dead!” because the truth is, her spirit has already been killed long ago.
Frank’s dirty little secret is that whereas he once felt like he was using the army for money and experience for his book, the lifestyle got inside him and took hold of him. And this is the thing he can’t come clean about even as his wife calls attention to “layers of me disappearing … You have the army … YOU have the brotherhood YOU have the great cause …. I have YOU.”
With a fantastic set designed by Tim McMath, innovative projection design by Alex Koch and subtly effective sound design Daniel Kluger this production of Down Range is stirring, evocative and tells a satisfyingly complete story even as the characters themselves must stop themselves short of doing just that.
With all money raised benefiting soldiersheart.net, this is a show that not only sates your desire for good theatre, but gives you the change to do some good for the thousands of men and woman who share these stories without sharing the spotlight.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009 through Saturday, November 14, 2009 Performances – Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, and Sunday, November 8 at 3pm. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at www.smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444. More information on Down Range can be found at www.delanocelli.com.