Establishing a solid reputation for cutting-edge drama that sharply focuses on contemporary issues, 16th Street Theater’s current premiere production, The Hero’s Wife, deals with the ways damaged men come home from war. Playwright Aline Lathrop, who wrote the successful and moving Merchild, produced at 16th Street in 2015, has penned another raw and powerful piece.
Co-directors Ann Filmer and Miguel Nunez effectively build the intensity of this two-character, fast-paced work, which includes sudden, unexpected shifts. Despite the often brutal events, the show is beautifully, gently directed. The impressive pair of actors are extremely skillful. This production is Jeff Recommended, making it “eligible for nomination for awards at the end of the season,” according to the Jeff Awards website.
Be aware that this is an intense experience, not a midsummer’s escapist romp. There is strong language, simulated violence and sexual situations, plus gunshots. This is the fourth production in 16th Street Theater’s 11th season which explores the theme “Heroes.”
Aaron Christensen plays Cameron, a military man in his 40s with a much younger wife. He’s just returned home from an assignment with the Navy SEALs in the Middle East. Karyssa, played by Alex Fisher, is a 23-year-old yoga instructor. She loves her husband deeply, but they seem to have not fully gotten to know one another before he abruptly went off to war. Karyssa, a strong female character, has functioned independently while Cam was gone, accomplishing tasks like fixing the broken washing machine by watching You Tube videos. But things immediately do not go well as soon as Cam returns to civilian and domestic life.
He will not go out to eat or any place where there may be people. He prefers making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at home. He’d rather shoot at empty beer cans in the backyard. But he will not talk about what’s bothering him. He wants Karyssa to learn to use a gun because he is fearful for her safety. But at night he experiences fretful sleep and terrifying episodes of violent behavior. In the morning he does not remember how his wife acquired such ugly bruises. He is scary and erratic.
At first Karyssa is full of compassion toward Cam, and so are we. But soon, as the tension escalates, she becomes heroic. He puts her in danger, even though he says to her, “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” Cam even wants them to have a baby to bring them closer together.
The play does not address the disgraceful lack of real help or support received by those returning from war. But this is a key factor with damaged warriors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Cam has had very poor care after his discharge. But who is hurting more? Karyssa cannot seem to help or “fix” him, so will she become just as damaged?
In a note from the co-directors in the playbill, they ask the question, “What is our capacity for compassion and empathy toward those who hurt us?”
The Hero’s Wife includes sudden episodes of violence that have an almost ballet-like choreographed quality. Victor Bayona and Rick Gilbert designed the violence scenes.
The lighting design by Cat Wilson is very expressive, heightening moments of tension and terror. Barry Bennett’s original music and sound design effectively punctuate the drama.
Joanna Iwanicka designed the fascinating abstract set that includes large tongue-like, carpeted extensions that become various set pieces, like beds and couches. Wendye Clarendon is the stage manager. The show lasts 90 minutes without an intermission.
“The Hero’s Wife” runs through Aug. 18. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m. $22; $18, military/low income/Berwyn residents; $10, students on day of show (limited availability). Tickets/more: 708-795-6704 x107, 16thstreettheater.org. 16th Street Theater is located in the Berwyn Cultural Center, 6420 16th St., Berwyn.