Rehana Lew Mirza asks what we really mean by Thank You for Your Service.
Nearly 14 years have passed since the NATO invasion of Afghanistan, making it by far the longest war in U.S. history. A generation of soldiers has been touched by this conflict, but since it was pursued by an all-volunteer force (no draft) the percentage of Americans truly impacted by the war has remained minimal (perhaps explaining its inordinate length). Rehana Lew Mirza explores the growing rift between civilian and military society in her probing (but flawed) drama Soldier X, now making its world premiere with the Ma-Yi Theater Company at HERE.
Monica Burnes (Kaliswa Brewster) is a Navy social worker stationed in San Diego. She spends her days with disturbed Afghanistan veterans like Lance Corporal Lynn Downey (Carolyn Michelle Smith). Returning Marine Jay Richards (Jared McNeill) has been given the all-clear from the mental health professionals, and he's ready to start his civilian life. His eyes are set on Amani Mehmod (Turna Mete), the sister of his fallen Marine buddy Talib. Amani is Muslim (as was Talib) and deeply suspicious of the military. Against Monica's advice, Jay pursues a relationship with Amani, almost certainly as a way to deal with his survivor's guilt.
Mirza's script is thick with contrivance, most notably when it comes to Jay and Amani's relationship. Given her feelings toward the military and the importance of her Muslim identity, it makes no sense that Amani would ever entertain a romance with a nonbelieving Marine. McNeill makes this forced relationship slightly more plausible with a winning performance (he's just so charming!), but it's not enough to support the lengths to which Mirza stretches the conceit. Amani's actions remain highly inscrutable throughout, and Mete's opaque portrayal does little to illuminate them.
But this interpersonal romance is not the most interesting aspect of Soldier X. Far more fascinating are Monica's sessions with Downey. Downey, who is on a mountain of prescription meds for her PTSD, challenges Monica, "Go ahead punch me, I won't feel a thing." She caustically asks, "Are you like, sixteen?" In fact, Monica is two years older than Downey, but you would never guess when seeing the hardened world-weariness of the latter juxtaposed with the fresh-faced innocence of the former.
As Downey, Smith gives the show's most electrifying performance. Her stony silence gives way to unbridled aggression. Her cruel laugh shreds through Monica and her touchy-feely therapist routine. "I used to be just like you, you know? Before they put all this sh*t in me? I was funny just like you," she tells a horrified Monica, who glimpses her future should she get sent "over there."
The polar opposite of tough-girl Downey is delicate Lori (Cleo Gray), the Asian-American barista at Amani's favorite coffee joint. Gray embodies the well-meaning (but clueless) California hipster, complete with a miniskirt and fantastically strappy boots (costumes by Beth Goldenberg). The two meet in a contentious scene that ends with an increasingly hostile Downey screaming at Lori, who responds accordingly. "When I threatened to call the police I realized, I want them to make her disappear," Lori later admits. Is the perfunctory "thank you for your service" really just a way to make our veterans disappear? Are we quietly imploring them to not ruin our comfortable Stateside existence with their PTSD rage?
Director Lucie Tiberghien gives plenty of breathing room to Mirza's tough questions, even as she attempts to wrangle an often nonsensical plot. While character motives remain hazy, our sense of time and place is always crystal-clear. Daniel Conway's functional set is meant to represent multiple spaces, keeping every set piece always onstage. With the help of lighting designer Peter West, Tiberghien makes it seem as if these momentarily superfluous items of furniture existed on a different plane. The cast goes along with this convention, ignoring Monica's desk during the coffee shop scenes even though it is right in the middle of the stage. We ignore it as well.
Mirza never lets us ignore her recurring theme of the profound civilian disinterest in military and veteran affairs. Even though combat operations formally ended in December 2014, over 12,000 NATO troops remain in Afghanistan as a part of "Operation Resolute Support." If domestic interest in the Afghanistan War waned after the first year, one can expect barely any Stateside acknowledgment at all of a war that is no longer "officially" even happening. Nor will we think much about the veterans of that nonwar. Mirza deserves credit for even trying to keep this vitally important conversation alive.