Friday, July 29, 2011

The war at home

                                                    A sample of the video "interviews" from Outside the Wire.

Sometimes, it does still happen. A little company comes out of nowhere and stages a remarkable new play. These days, however, the question always is - will anybody notice?

Well, a few of us still notice. My colleague Larry Stark of the Theatre Mirror, who sees everything, began emailing me desperately over the weekend that I absolutely had to see Outside the Wire, by the fledgling Cornerstone Stage Company, at the BCA (through this Saturday evening only). Now Larry, God love him, is always a bit more - enthusiastic, shall we say? - than I am about things, so I took his initial rave with a small grain of salt. But when he waves his arms long enough - and the e-mails kept coming - I feel I have to pay attention. So I checked out Outside the Wire on Wednesday night, paying my way so I'd feel okay about slinking out at intermission if I had to.

Needless to say, I stayed for the whole thing, and was glad I did. Outside the Wire - which was written by Jimi Stanton, the young actor who made a splash in the overwrought 9 Circles just a few months ago - is hardly a perfect play; it is a sometimes awkward, but always heartfelt, attempt to deal in dramatic terms with the emotional adjustments veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars must make upon their return to the homefront (the experiences of Stanton's brother, we are let know, inspired him to write the play).  To be blunt, Stanton offers little that is new here - the script moves through utterly conventional conflicts to a highly predictable climax and resolution.  The playwright's one original stroke has been to mix his live action with videotaped "interviews" (see above), which together give the piece a surprising resonance (we feel we're watching a documentary and a drama simultaneously) - even if, at times, the 'documentary' piece, and several changes of scene between here and Iraq, inevitably slow down Stanton's plot.

What's remarkable about Outside the Wire, however, is its penetrating sense of emotional versimilitude (that's highbrow slang for "truth").  Stanton has an unerring ear for dialogue - particularly the overlapping masculine banter of his lead character's squadron - and what's more, he seems to know instinctively never to push anything, to let the pain his characters are experiencing simply surface in and of itself out of the everyday.  This, of course, is precisely the opposite of the approach taken by the purple 9 Circles, and it makes Stanton's superficially less-accomplished script far more gripping than that wildly over-rated potboiler was.  Indeed, I'm not sure I've ever seen the emotional isolation of the wounded soldier conveyed in a more intense fashion than it is here.

Then again, Stanton has been lucky in his performances (including his own - he has cast himself as his lead). The playwright has trusted his best-friend-since-childhood Daniel Marcum to direct, and young Marcum has drawn a suite of astonishingly convincing portrayals from a host of unknowns - mostly cast, I got the impression, from the theatre department at Fitchburg State.  What's in the water at Fitchburg State?  I've no idea, but it must be powerful stuff.  To be honest, many of these kids are doing "film" acting rather than "stage" acting - in close-up, as in their "interviews", they're impeccable, but a few haven't yet learned how to open out their vocal and physical performances when they're onstage (it's worth noting, I think, that director Marcum is trained as a filmmaker rather than a stage director). 

Still, the Black Box at the BCA is a small enough space that their emotional work registers with intense force.  Stanton's understated characterization is as fine as his performance was in 9 Circles, and there's really not a weak link in the ensemble - particularly nuanced turns came from Sara Cormier and Lance Flamino, as the lead's lonely wife and happy-go-lucky best friend, respectively.  But Reid W. Connell's turn as the haunted hotshot of the squad is what will be remembered from this show, because it's simply indelible; his long breakdown, which caps the first act, is one of the most subtly devastating pieces of acting I've seen on a local stage in some time.  You leave this production feeling that in the work of Stanton, Marcum, and Connell you've just seen the beginnings of what may turn out to be three remarkable careers.

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