To truly appreciate Healing Wars, Liz Lerman's artistic dance-theatrical piece now receiving its world premiere at Arena Stage, audiences must abandon all expectations of a traditional or even linear story and let the artistry of the movement overwhelm them. By doing so, they will walk away deeply moved.
Before the play "officially" begins, we are presented with a behind-the-scenes tour of a living museum of characters who acted as healers in different wars — there's Hurwitz Pullman as the Civil War's virtuous Clara Barton; George Hirsch as a Civil War soldier moving in a trancelike dance that's part ballet, part break dancing; and movie star Bill Pullman sitting on a bench interviewing Paul Hurley, a young U.S. Navy gunner's mate, about losing his leg in post-9/11 action. It's a play within a play that starts the performance with a necessarily somber mood.
When the action switches to the stage, the first of a series of war-influenced vignettes begins, and we are introduced to Samantha Speis' character, who describes herself as some sort of spirit in charge of soldiers' destinies at the end of their lives. Her role seems confusing at times throughout the production, but Speis is a wonderful dancer whose interactions make you think about the savagery of war and how life is fleeting — which is what Lerman obviously hopes for.
Most of the dialogue rests in the capable hands of Pullman, who helped Lerman collect the source material that would be used in the production. As a Navy surgeon delivering a patient's tale of war in one touching scene, he reflects on why one particular patient had the outcome that he did. You see his confusion, anger, and sadness all within a single beat. There's no denying that having a seasoned actor like Pullman up front makes the production even stronger.
The show was expertly choreographed by Lerman and Keith Thompson, who also takes on the role of a Civil War soldier. The seven dancers (Marjani Forté, Hirsch, Ted Johnson, Hurwitz, Pullman, Alli Ross, Speis, and Thompson) are hypnotic, with an incredible range from a ballet-inspired number to the rock-influenced Lady Gaga anthem "Telephone." Each dance tells a vivid story.
It's easy to point to Hurley and his "character" as the breakout performer of the show. He delivers a stirring monologue recalling the events that led to his losing his leg in the Middle East. There's no more poignant moment than when he sits alone on a bench, pulls off his prosthetic leg, and stands. Hurley, a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, also shows the gracefulness that his dance training has provided him in several of the vignettes.
One particularly moving moment comes when Hurley and Thompson unite to express their war stories and experiences through dance. Mind you, these are tales from two different wars in two different eras, but their experiences are equally tragic.
The dialogue, while moving, doesn't say as much as the dance. Besides Pullman, the actors seem a little stiff in their deliveries, obviously more comfortable keeping their bodies in motion than spouting dialogue. And the stories themselves, while probably riveting in book form, don't seem to pack a powerful emotional punch onstage, as they are, sadly, stories we have heard before.
Still, what Lerman has created is something original and thought-provoking: an examination of more than a century of war told through mouths from which we have not always heard.
The production team heightens the impact of the work, thanks to Heidi Eckwall's moody lighting, Darron L. West's effective sound design, and Kate Freer's useful multimedia.
It's no secret that war is hell, and while Healing Wars doesn't get as deep as it could, at 70 minutes long, plus the 30-minute must-see pre-show, what it does deliver is something worthy of our attention.