By Walter Hickey
The staged reading of Richard Kalinoski’s recent drama “My Soldiers” did much more than simply present the story of a returning soldier’s struggle with post traumatic stress disorder. The reading, presented as the inaugural production of the theater, speech and dance department’s new series Around the Edges, brought up the close-to-home issue for the Norfolk area then challenged the audience to consider profound questions about the return to normalcy for servicemen and women, as well as what can be done for the approximately 12.5 percent of Americans who return from deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan with PTSD.
Around the Edges was developed to present new and topical works to the William and Mary and Hampton Roads community in order to “spark social, ethical and political discourse between students, faculty, staff and community members.” This is the first presentation of Around the Edges, and proved a great start for the organization.
Organized by Professor Matthew Allar and several seniors from the departments of theater, speech and dance, “My Soldiers” tells of the struggles of returning Army National Guard medic Angi (Megan Behm ’11) who is suffering from trouble reacclimating to her former bucolic life, in addition to symptoms of severe PTSD. Her father (Logan Wamsley ’12), a taxidermist, and her friend (Claire Frederiksen ’11) a worker in a local baby formula plant, don’t know how to pull Angi out of her depressed and vulnerable state. They spend much of the show walking clumsily on eggshells, when the wrong phrase or location can reawaken traumatizing memories of loss, terror, grief, and guilt that Angi has from Iraq. The first act deals with the increasing severity of her reactions to otherwise innocuous stimuli, and the second act involves her attempts and struggles with a therapist, Zoe Speas ’12, to regain control. Francesca Chilcote ’11 and Greg Benson ’11 assisted Prof. Allar in planning and execution, as well as playing roles themselves.
Forgoing the complications of a full stage production, the staged reading was a simpler, however significantly more intimate, presentation. The setting was sparse, the costumes nonexistent and the actors were all in muted black, yet all this served to improve the importance of the work itself, through its dialogue. Professor Allar, prior to the reading, encouraged the audience to think of it much like a production of radio program from the early twentieth century, with the responsibility on the audience to contemplate setting and design. This drew the audience even further in to the drama. Additionally, the physical proximity of the actors led the audience to have a closer connection with the characters themselves.
After the script reading, the presentation then went on to invite a panel of four experts to lead a discussion of their interactions with PTSD and what can be done to help those who served the nation abroad and return home with it. The panel included Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Randall Stovall, who recently served a one year deployment at the Naval base in Guantanamo Bay. Stovall had a fascinating perspective, contributing his stories of how he helped friends with PTSD and why it is such a pervasive problem. Guantanamo Bay detention camps have one of the highest rates of PTSD in returning servicemembers of any deployment. Second on the panel was Bailey Jennifer Wooflstead, a volunteer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for three years and a William and Mary Law School student who has recently worked with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs on new PTSD regulation. Also on the panel was William and Mary Writer in Residence Kirsten Holmstedt, author of “Band of Sisters” and “The Girls Come Marching Home,” and has written extensively about women in combat and the struggles they face upon return. Rounding out the group of experts was adjunct professor Rob Ruffin, who is putting together dramatherapy programs for veterans with PTSD with his group American PlayWorks
The discussion was as captivating and informative as the play, serving to fill in the blanks that the play and presentation left in the minds of the audience. The panel talked about what the VA is doing to combat PTSD, and what ordinary Americans can do to appreciate returning veterans. Behm, the lead actress and assistant producer for Allar said the discussion “was a very satisfying experience as a theatre artist to see a piece of theatre help initiate such insightful conversation into issues that concern all of us.”
The play provoked genuine interest in PTSD and its impact on individuals. The staged reading presented a highly personal and unique account of one soldier’s experiences with PTSD, which aimed at the emotional core of the audience and landed right on target thanks to passionate acting and skillfully intimate staging. The panel then explained how the reading is unsettlingly close to the real situation encountered by several hundred thousand soldiers. A year of stress, loss and fatigue can have traumatizing impacts on a human life, and the struggle to adapt back to a routine can be much more significant then most would expect, struggles which the production really spoke to.
The audience — around 45 community members, students and faculty — had a rare opportunity to view a recently scribed, regionally topical and elegantly executed drama, then to hear from a genuinely fascinating panel of experts on an issue that hits the Hampton Roads community especially hard. Anyone interested in being captivated, challenged or inspired should closely follow what Around the Edges has to show the community in the future.