“The Hero’s Wife” a Harrowing Homecoming @ 16th Street Theater

“The Hero’s Wife” a Harrowing Homecoming @ 16th Street Theater

4 out of 4 stars

Americans revere the legendary “Good Guy with a Gun,” and, among the good guys, the Navy SEALs are among the most revered and feared. These silent professionals kill, watch friends die and venture into danger with orders not to reveal what they do. This silence has come under fire as creating an insular culture where even war crimes can take place. Whatever happened to Cameron, the returning hero in Aline Lathrop’s 90-minute play, The Hero’s Wife, now in a taut, unsettling world premiere at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater, has left him scarred beyond recognition. Left without military support to make his transition back to civilian life, Cam’s young yoga-teacher wife, Karyssa, fights to get to know the man she loves. A lot of themes surface in The Hero’s Wife, including how the United States treats those who have served the country after retirement, the impact of PTSD, domestic violence and the attitudes toward violence in America, but it is the love story at the heart that makes us care. Under the fluid, propulsive direction of Ann Filmer and Miguel Nunez, Aaron Christensen as Cam and Alex Fisher as Karyssa engage in a physical and emotional battle for a life they can share.

The Hero’s Wife portrays the return of a retired Navy SEAL to his young wife after a deployment that lasted longer than their eight-week whirlwind courtship and marriage. Despite their short acquaintance, Karyssa can see that Cam is not the man she married. Though he claims to be unaffected by his experiences, he avoids going out of the house except to go target shooting, which Karyssa points out is not really going out. While he is jumpy and security-conscious during the day, having a revolver always near at hand and extolling the need for preparedness, he is also tender and loving. It is at night that Karyssa begins to learn about the events that have driven a wedge between them. Cam experiences night terrors during which he is transported to the operations he survived. Wanting to learn more about Cam, and to find a way to help him re-assimilate into civilian life, Karyssa finds ways to access these memories and to connect to her husband’s mindset. Her determination to do so comes at a price…Cam’s night terrors put her physically at risk as he relives the violence that is shoved aside in the light of day. Karyssa does what she can to help Cam reenter society, encouraging him to create a resume, teach boot camp style classes at her yoga studio and get a job as a security guard. Cam in turn does his best to become the civilian he thinks she wants him to be, even while being frustrated by the fact that he can neither share his experiences nor sell his skills. 

Directors Ann Filmer and Miguel Nuñez have perfectly woven the fabric of a relationship where tenderness and understanding alternate with violence and alienation. Their blocking crosses into choreography as Cam and Karyssa negotiate an intimacy threatened by Cam’s suppressed memories, but still informed by a deep physical and emotional connection. Shifting out of often beautiful moments of tenderness, the violence design by Victor Bayona and Rick Gilbert of R & D Choreography is brutally realistic and startling, no extended fight sequences, just the immediacy of force delivered for maximum effect. The video-game inspired set by Joanna Iwanicka allows the actors to move seamlessly between interior and exterior locations, but also adds to the sense of danger that is always present. Cat Wilson’s lighting design reinforces the choreographic elements of the blocking, as well as the insular world that traps Cam and Karyssa; as the characters move closer to the moment of crisis, you may find yourself cringing at the shifts in lighting. Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes are simple, but effectively convey the journey—revealing Cam’s changing outlook on his world as he becomes more comfortable in it, and slowly baring both Karyssa’s strength and vulnerability. Properties by Jamie Karas keep things firmly in the real world. Finally, Barry Bennett’s sound design and original music put the audience squarely in the world that Cam and Karyssa share, with day-to-day noises becoming ominous, the raucous sounds of first person shooter video games echoing the sounds of real battles, and gunshots that fill the space.  

It is impossible to communicate how remarkably Aaron Christensen and Alex Fisher connect to each other and their characters without spoilers. Christensen embodies the macho, rogue warrior aesthetic of the stereotypical Navy Seal, but also the love that compels him to walk back and admit that his responses to threats sometimes exceed the threat presented. He captures the frustration, confusion and resistance in Cam’s desperate attempts to become a civilian after nearly two decades of survival under fire, putting just a little too much into his video gameplay, jumping to his wife’s defense, and sheepishly enjoying her pride or acknowledging her points. Alex Fisher brilliantly finds the path through her character’s journey from helpless bewilderment at the changes her husband underwent through her growing understanding of how to access his nightmare, to the strength to face down both their fears. Her triumphs as she ushers Cam slowly into the civilian world, her frustration at his extremes and her discovery of her own reserves of cunning and power help alleviate the anticipation of the night terrors that punctuate and inspire her journey. The chemistry between the performers helps keep the audience invested in a relationship that is sometimes hard to watch—the violence and fear are raw and startling, but the tenderness that keeps the couple together makes it possible to hope that somehow they will be able to overcome the enormous gulf between their experiences.

There are two codes of silence at work in The Hero’s Wife, both fraught with shame and fear, that of the silent professional and that felt by many victims of domestic violence. In Aline Lathrop’s play, the characters struggle to reconcile these and survive before they destroy each other. It is a strikingly intimate and bruising scenario, and the production, grounded by powerful performances by Aaron Christensen and Alex Fisher matches the text. Ann Filmer and Miguel Nunez’s direction allows the dynamics to fluently unfold as the stakes become higher until the inevitable final confrontation. Though initially the characters seem almost like caricatures of the roles they play in the world, they soon reveal the depths of their humanity and need. You may find yourself frustrated by the choices that the characters make, especially Fisher’s Karyssa, but it becomes apparent that there may not be other options given the circumstances. The striking final moments will stay with you, as will the warmth and humor shared by the characters even as they literally fight for their relationship and try to create a world where they can exist together. 

The Hero’s Wife, presented by 16thStreet Theater, runs through August 18, at the Berwyn Cultural Center, 6420 16thStreet, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30, and Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00. Tickets are $22 ($18 for Berwyn residents/low income/military) and are available online at www.16thstreettheater.org, by phone at (708)795-6704 or in person at North Berwyn Park District, 1619 Wesley Ave., Berwyn. For more in information also visit www.theatreinchicago.com.

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.