Playwright: Megan Carney. At: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N.Ridge Ave. Tickets: 773-334-7728; www.rivendelltheatre.org; $32-$35. Runs through: Dec. 6
Women at War does for the female front-line grunts in the Iraqi wars what Tracers did for their male counterparts in Viet Nam, breaking from conventional depictions of women-in-uniform as wholesome all-American campfire girlsor, more recently, Hallmark-card moms skyping smiley greetings to adorable moppets. Instead, Megan Carney's tone approximates the gritty intimacy of a barracks snapshot, creating a collage of desert-camo scrubbed bare of soapy sentiment.
Take PFC Ramirez, for example, the high school cheerleader whose athletic prowess and competitive drive surpasses that of her fellow manly-man marines. Or Seaman Smith, who joined the Navy to escape ghetto violence, only to find herself charged with dropping bombs on foreign neighborhoods. Then there's Seaman Dash, whose blog offers minimal comfort in her struggle with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" secrecy, and Colonel Monroe, whose career was founded on the discovery that she was pretty damn GOOD at commanding troops. Oh, and let's not forget Airman Matthews, whose family's disapproval of her absentee parenting exacerbates the spiritual isolation from which reservists are supposed to be exempt.
The documented experiences encompass current hot-button topics: We receive instruction in how to deal with sexual harassment within the ranks and the mistrust engendered thereby ( though dissenters make a case for the pleasures of flirtation in a rigidly ascetic country devoid of customary outlets for hormonal overload ). We witness the obstructions encountered at military hospitals by soldiers seeking treatment for physical, mental and social problems, as well as the difficulties of reorientation from the restrictive universe of overseas employment to the nebulous environment of civilian "office culture."
Carney's extensive research is the result of numerous interviews with actual veterans ( including one appearing in the castsee if you can identify her without looking at the playbill bios ). Director Tara Mallen and the nine-member ensemble have also done their homework, achieving a level of verisimilitude rarely seen by audiences whose impressions of military personnel are limited to Hollywood imageswhich, ironically, includes many veterans unaware of changes in training and protocol implemented since their own tours.
Some playgoers may object to the omission of debate over, say, our government's responsibility in perpetuating wars, or the prevalence of male-on-male sexual assault. Carney's goal is not an agenda-driven call to arms, however, nor does it attempt to exploit its subculture in service of ill-conceived metaphors. This is not the "big picture," designed to provide a nicely orchestrated flag-waving ( and quickly forgotten ) cry, but a gallery of individual portraits as small as the revelations they render.