Forceful drama explores modern warfare

Theater Review

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By Doug Deuchler


Elaine Romero's brave, crisp drama, Graveyard of Empires, is having its premiere as part of 16th Street Theater's eighth season, showcasing the theme "Fathers Daughters Mothers Sons." This is the first installment of the playwright's trilogy, "The U.S. at War." The tightly directed new work, which runs 90 minutes without an intermission, features powerful performances in overlapping plot lines that flow through space (Las Vegas, Washington D. C., and Afghanistan) and memory. The production has been Jeff Nominated.

War is messy, complicated and difficult, just as family relationships often are. Romero's drama depicts the dynamics of contemporary drone warfare and its effect on various participants. The new technology allows the U.S. to wage war with remote-controlled, unmanned aerial combat vehicles. But with this comes a curious disconnect with no sense of the horror and carnage of battle. 

Part 2 of Romero's trilogy, A Work of Art, opens June 19 at Chicago Dramatists. The playwright is now writing her final play of the trio, Rain of Ruin

Kevin Christopher Fox directs with an intense focus. His dynamic cast of six make the complex characters vivid and fascinating. The language is often heightened and intense; at times characters sound poetic and may even actually speak in tongues.

Joe Dempsey portrays Drew Snider, a software engineer in his late 40s who has developed the predatory drone used in modern warfare. He's blessed and cursed with a mind that vividly remembers every moment of his life. He also can never quite let go of his ex-wife. (He's especially impressive when doing a number of rapid push-ups while clapping between each up-and-down.)

Played by Katherine Keberlein (a River Forest resident), Drew's divorced wife still loves him. Though she devoted her life to her son, she's also been evolving in a variety of ways, even changing her name from Cheryl to Shanti, which means "Peace."

George Booker has the role of their 20-something son, Nathan, a college dropout who grew up feeling he's failed his demanding father, whom he believes is a genius. So he attempts to please his father by enlisting in the military.

A Mexican-American First Lieutenant in the Air Force named Ramiro who never actually gets to fly, but who "flies" unmanned aircraft, is played by Nelson Rodriguez. He is in Nevada, yet he's waging war on the mountainous Khyber Pass that connects Aghanistan to Pakistan. Rodriguez is especially dynamic emotionally when he is held responsible for human fallout — many deaths in a U.S. platoon in a predatory drone "friendly fire" incident.

Karen Rodriguez plays complicated, perceptive Angela, Ramiro's attractive wife. At times she shares yoga activity with Shanti. Drew's longtime software warfare colleague, Mac, is portrayed by Robert Koon. 

The design team for Graveyard of Empires has done an exceptional job on this production.

The performance space has been extended out to create the largest acting area I remember seeing at 16th Street Theater. The total effect of the various components of sight and sound is eerie and ominous. 

The scenic design by Anthony Churchill accommodates a variety of locations. Numerous projections offer stunning visuals that clarify background settings while others are military computerizations lifted from warfare. Steven Hill is the technical director. The original music and sound are by Barry Bennett. Jennifer Aparico is the stage manager.

This new work is smart, thought-provoking, and vigorous. The remote nature of modern warfare, with its lack of accountability, heightens the conflicts. We witness both a family and a married couple, plus several individual soldiers, all impacted by the drone issue. Can the characters move toward their future while they're so conflicted — unable to come to terms with their heavy emotional baggage from the past? 

I feel haunted by an aspect of current technological war "advancement" I'd never fully processed before watching this play: the lack of accountability. A soldier in a remote desert in Nevada kills people in the Middle East without ever witnessing the killing, then goes home to try to lead a normal life. 

16th Street Theater typically takes us into dicey, cutting-edge contemporary issues and conflicts, and does so again with this fresh, forceful drama.

DougDeuchler, a longtime educator, is an Oak Parker who, when not reviewing community theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, a local tour guide and docent, and author of several books about Oak Park and neighboring communities.

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