“Thank you for your service.”
Have you ever said those well-meaning, polite words to a war veteran? You may never say them quite as casually again after seeing Synchronicity Theatre’s new drama “The Hero’s Wife,” by Aline Lathrop, directed by Rachel May, running through May 5.
The play is being presented by Synchronicity in a joint world premiere with Chicago’s 16th Street Theater.
Cameron (Joe Sykes) is a returning Navy SEAL who has been in Iraq but is now home with an “other-than-dishonorable” discharge. Director May in program notes says “Right now, veterans with anything other than a general or honorable discharge are not even considered veterans and are granted no benefits.” Cameron’s wife, Karyssa (Rebeca Robles) does not know the nature of his discharge.
Ms. May also comments that “Many native cultures have rituals for returning warriors to be separate from their families for a number of days, when they can ‘lay down the warrior spirit’ in order to return home.” I find this information extremely helpful and revealing and thank her for it.
The situation in the play is simple but with no easy answers: Cameron (usually called Cam) has been having nightmares since returning home but at first denies it. They are obviously post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related. As you probably know, symptoms may include nightmares, unwanted memories of the trauma, anxiety, and depression.
What you may not know is that the person experiencing the trauma can be a violent and dangerous bed partner even while “sleeping.” This is the part of the play that is not easy to watch. Cam sleeps with a gun under his pillow; he strikes out at Karyssa, and he is a powerful man. He starts speaking in Arabic, and in the daytime denies he knows the language.
God knows what he endured in the Middle East: torture, violence, killing others, the death of comrades. He won’t talk about it. Karyssa pleads with him to see a psychiatrist, but he won’t. Only when he sees physical evidence of the violence he has inflicted on his own wife while in bed with her does he admit something is seriously wrong.
In the daytime, the two of them are fairly “normal”; Cam can be affectionate. But the nights are seasons of horror. Eventually, confronted with incontrovertible evidence of his nocturnal violence, he tells her to leave their bed when the nightmares start. She does, but it’s not enough. At one point he starts firing his gun at ominous noises which turn out to be a mouse.
Aline Lathrop, the playwright, says her play is a love story which “tests the limits of intimacy, forgiveness, and compassion,” for the characters and for the audience. I would not argue with her.
And I would submit that it is Karyssa, superbly played by Ms. Robles, who emerges the hero in this play; maybe not on the battlefield, but she gamely steels herself to fight for her marriage, her husband, and her own life. Karyssa is smart, tenacious, and determined. At one point I think she says Cam is a badass, but she matches him, as she takes up shooting, learns Arabic, and single-handedly begins to pull them both out of the quicksand of war—mankind’s worst invention.
Mr. Sykes also turns in a powerful, moving performance. When he admits, “I don’t know how to be in the world,” and especially when he almost breaks down as he realizes what he has done to his wife, it’s a visceral, heartbreaking moment.
While the actors are close to flawless (also Ms. May’s direction), the play itself is a bit problematic. If we knew a bit more about each character, or had seen snatches of their lives together before Iraq, I think our empathy for each would be even stronger. As it is, we are left to marvel at two professional actors at the top of their form.
For tickets and information, visit synchrotheatre.com.