Arti Ishak (Leila) and Randy Steinmeyer (Johnny) in Johnny 10 Beers' Daughter, directed by Emmi Hilger, at Chicago Dramatists.
Arti Ishak (Leila) and Randy Steinmeyer (Johnny) in Johnny 10 Beers' Daughter, directed by Emmi Hilger, at Chicago Dramatists.
(© Anthony Aicardi)

Johnny 10 Beers' Daughter, currently receiving its debut production with Something Marvelous in association with Chicago Dramatists' Grafting Project, is a short, sharp play about a father and daughter who serve in Iraq, deploying 16 years apart. Johnny (Randy Steinmeyer) serves in the first half of the Iraq War. He comes back in one piece, but when he fails to find his footing in civilian life, he sequesters himself in a cabin on the banks of the Poudres River in Colorado. There he drinks, fishes, and entertains occasional visits from his daughter, Leila (Ari Ishak). They skip rocks and fish together, but Johnny's too isolated to see just how much she adores him.

It seems inevitable when Leila follows in Johnny's footsteps, joining the Marines and writing letters to her father from the banks of the Euphrates, picking up the same skills — and the same scars — that her father did in the same war. As parent and child forge new bonds, they also discover hardships that neither of them can overcome. Without spoiling too much of the dreamlike play, it is as violent and brutal as any wartime drama, while remaining shockingly intimate.

Both actors in this two-hander are up to the task of this complex script. Early in the play, Ishak's Leila is sweetly transparent, with every thought and impulse visible on her face. As the war rages on, Ishak expertly transforms Leila into a slim shadow of her father. It's a beautiful, challenging role, and it's hard to imagine anybody playing it better than Ishak has here. She is matched by Steinmeyer, who uses every part of himself as a weapon, from his gravelly voice to his piercing eyes.

At 110 minutes without intermission, Johnny 10 Beers' Daughter, directed by Emmi Hilger, is performed with razor-sharp precision. Not a word is out of place. As the play spans years and continents, a vivid combination of design elements arise: Kara Grimm's shifting, elemental lighting design evokes the Poudres and Euphrates riversides, and Barry Bennett's prominent sound design is haunting and melancholy.

Nicholas Schwartz's abstract set makes the most of the Chicago Dramatists' small stage, creating a forest of letters and envelopes, a lifetime of correspondence between a parent and child separated by war and emotional distance. Hilger's staging is simple and relatively still, allowing the performances to carry Dana Lynn Formby's script.

Johnny Ten Beers' Daughter is surprisingly apolitical. The characters' suffering — and they suffer plenty — isn't portrayed as a failure of the Department of Veterans' Affairs or of any elected officials. Nobody even questions whether a second generation of soldiers should be heading to Iraq. Instead, the Iraq War is treated as an immutable fact of life, something that's always been happening and will always happen. That is, perhaps, more heartbreaking than something more pointedly political could be.