Written by Michelle Kholos Brooks, War Words is based on more than a dozen interviews with military personnel. The individuals span different ranks and are drawn from across the armed services. In addition, the cast of fourteen includes several military veterans, who are joined by actors without military experience, which contributes to the authenticity and veracity of the accounts presented on stage.
With direction by Sarah Norris, the play begins with the performers seated in the audience, and as the houselights dim, they emerge from the house to enter the playing space. (Julia Squier's commonplace costumes help make the actors unnoticeably different from the spectators.) The initial impression is that they are just like us and could be us. Structurally, the play resembles A Chorus Line, but with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of dancers. In the course of the evening we get to know, among other things, each individual's reasons for joining the military. For instance, several signed up in reaction to 9/11, others for educational opportunities, and others for the chance to see the world.
Some of the stories about war and its physical and psychological impact on the lives of the men and women are harrowing. Army and Air Force fighter Danny (Jakob von Eichel) describes the horrific effects of PTSD and the toll this takes on his wife (Bethany Geraghty) and family. The uncontrolled violence he describes is chilling. In another case, former marine Pete (John Siciliano) lost a leg as a result of combat, and he comically explains: "I've fallen out of bed a couple of times because I just forgot. I wake up, I step out of bed and the next thing you know I'm flat on the floor. And then it's, oh yeah, I've got no leg!"
Many of the stories are quite moving, including the account of Janis (Haythem Noor), an Afghan translator and Matt (John Concado), a soldier he saves. With so many different characters, though, it is hard to get to know each of them individually. Additionally, issues and critiques of the military (such as the apparent lack of concern from the higher-ups, incidents of institutional sexism and sexual abuse, and the lack of resources for returning vets) are introduced but not fully explored. Rather than a deeper understanding of the one percent who serve, we are given snapshots of the disparate lives and experiences. That's a pity.
While the dramaturgical construction is unproductively diffuse, the ensemble (all of whom are quite good, and regrettably, since it is such a large company, there isn't space to name them all) make up for this in working effectively together as a unit. Performing on a bare playing area (Brian Dudkiewicz's minimalist design serves the piece well), the actors maneuver like a cohesive squadron, and Sarah Grace Houston's movement provides numerous opportunities for varying troop formations. Elaine Wong's lighting, which makes terrific use of neon and geometric floor patterns, adds to the appropriate feeling of disciplined regimentation.
There is consistent percussion accompaniment (performed by Andrew Beall and orchestrated by Mariana Ramirez), which highlights the overt theatricality. At times, though, the continuous background thrumming comes across as an overly earnest Foley artist providing sound effects. The moments detract from the power of the words rather than enhance them.
War Words offers an important reminder of the sacrifices that the few, the proud, and the faithful make for the other 99 percent of us. If the play is not as wholly successful as one would hope, ultimately, the production reveals that when it comes to war, words are just not enough.