Rutina Wesley and Grantham Coleman in One Night... at Cherry Lane Theatre.
Rutina Wesley and Grantham Coleman in One Night... at Cherry Lane Theatre.
(© Sandra Coudert)

Not all great plays keep you wishing they'd never end. Some, like Charles Fuller's One Night..., currently receiving its world premiere at Cherry Lane Theatre, tell a horrific story so truthful it can feel tough to sit through. But these are the plays that stick with you long after you leave the theater. These are the ones you think about and talk about, the ones that stand a chance of bringing about change.

One Night..., a collaboration between Cherry Lane and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, makes tangible the all-too-real predicament of American soldiers who return home from their tours of duty, wrought with mental, emotional, and physical disabilities, to a system that often isn't equipped to get them back on their feet. In particular, this play focuses on Alicia G. (Rutina Wesley), an army sergeant who came back early from her post in Iraq after reporting being gang-raped by three of her subordinates. Roughly a year after returning home, Alicia finds herself still floundering — mostly unable to function due to PTSD and constant flashbacks — though she is getting by with the help of a devoted (though also ill) former sniper named Horace Lloyd (Grantham Coleman) who she had barely known in The Sand Box.

The intermissionless 100-minute play takes place entirely in a single slovenly motel room right off some indistinct bit of U.S. highway. Though there is a small cast of characters, many of them appear only in flashbacks, leaving Wesley and Coleman to carry the heavy story almost entirely on their own. In fact, neither gets more than five minutes offstage. However, these two young actors prove more than up to the task. Throughout One Night…, Wesley and Lloyd sink further and further into Fuller's ambiguous, multifaceted characters, blurring the lines between actor and character in ways that make Horace's moral struggles and Alicia's psychotic breakdowns almost physically painful to witness.

Clinton Turner Davis' understated direction serves as a solid backbone for Fuller's examination of internal turmoil, just as John McDermott's realistically simple set, a barebones hotel room, provides a sturdy backdrop on which Alicia, Horace, and their occasional guests play out the everyday horrors of their lives. Indeed, if anything, McDermott's two-twin-bed room represents a clean, calm, and grounded space in a world full of nothing but monstrously terrible memories. Just seeing Alicia win the tiny victory of finding a reasonably clean blanket in a closet gives the audience a moment to breathe a sigh of relief. But those breaths are few and far between when forced prostitution and dirty cops lead into hazy projections of war scenes depicting the terrors of war.

If One Night… has a theme beyond providing awareness to American heroes who are getting the short end of the stick, it's the ambiguity of truth. Americans are used to thinking of their veterans as kindly grandfathers who march in parades, when in truth they are often sons and daughters who march home, back into a world that is no longer friendly and in which they no longer know how to function. As Alicia and Horace search for the real basis of their relationship, the audience is forced to consider the reality of the lives of our service women and men.