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Theater Review - On the front lines

On stage, women bear witness to war

Women weep while men make war. Across continents and centuries, the roles scarcely change: Male leaders open hostilities and send male soldiers to earn medals or honored burials. On the home front, wives and mothers receive the messages that begin "We regret to inform you ..."

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Women may not shoulder all of the burdens of battle, but they're perceived as the innocents, the ones who nurture life while men strive to extinguish it. Thus, either as innocent civilians or grieving survivors, women can become irrefutable symbols of war's costs. That can explain why the anti-Iraq War movement (and seemingly the whole of the American Left) mobilized around "Peace Mom" Cindy Sheehan. Airtight pacifist arguments, the despairing anger of actual Iraq veterans, the glamour of matinee idols — none had the rallying power of one mourning mother of a decorated Army Specialist killed in a foreign land.

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Theater has subscribed to a kind of Sheehanism nearly since the art form began. One of the first anti-war plays, Euripides' Trojan Women, evokes the horrors of the Trojan War by dramatizing the plight of the women on the losing side. From Shaw's Saint Joan to Brecht's Mother Courage, plays have shown women paying the price of war-mongering policies. Three current productions from Theatre in the Square, Theatre Gael and Synchronicity Performance Group all use women to express anti-war sentiments, but Synchronicity's Women and War draws the most complex conclusions.

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Closing Sept. 25, Shirley Lauro's A Piece of My Heart at Theatre in the Square views the Vietnam experience fresh through eyes of six women, mostly health-care workers. Dramatizations of Nam may be familiar to the point of cliché, but taking the feminine point of view — primarily through mending injured soldiers and recovering from psychological wounds — brings the conflict's horrors to life.

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Playwright Sean O'Casey had no overt intention of playing the gender card in The Plough and the Stars (through Oct. 16 at Theatre Gael), about Ireland's Easter uprising against the English in 1916. The tragicomic play, however, conveys its pathos almost entirely through the women characters, such as the heartbroken soldier's wife (Marcie Millard) and a sickly, rag-wearing girl (Chandler Converse) who emerges as an icon comparable to the waif in Les Miserables' posters.

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Synchronicity Performance Group tries to encompass the entirety of the experience in Women and War, a project of nearly insane ambition and scope. The play's origins began in March 2003, when Synchronicity joined thousands of theaters worldwide in The Lysistrata Project, staged readings of Aristophanes' comedy in which the wives of warring city-states seek to end the conflict by withholding all sexual favors. An act of protest against the impending Iraq War, The Lysistrata Project inspired Synchronicity to pursue an original, ensemble-created work about how war affects women's lives.

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Interviewing about 40 Atlanta-area women and defining "war" as any conflict between two political entities, Women and War recounts vignettes and stories from recorded history to such modern hot spots as Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and the former Yugoslavia. The show profiles a pair of feisty Marietta Square Iraq War protesters, but evolves into more than a pacifist diatribe or lament about women's global victimhood. Granted, Women and War does not flinch from showing women suffering "collateral damage" from warfare: In one monologue, a young mother (Crystal Dickinson) describes being raped and maimed by a gang of young soldiers in nearly unbearable detail.

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But far more than Piece of My Heart or Plough and the Stars, Women and War returns to images of feminine strength, without stooping to motivational feminist uplift. A vignette about military service features the nine-actress cast doing push-ups and other drills while reflecting on both their first-hand experiences and the possibilities of an all-female army. (One quips that PMS in a pill could be the ultimate weapon.) Hip-hop-influenced choreography illustrates the female "swing shift" labor movement during World War II, while a tongue-in-cheek historical review, "The Killer Miss Congeniality Pageant," celebrates women warriors.

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Synchronicity's characters never advocate for war per se, but some argue passionately for patriotism, such as the executive at a combat boot company who declares, "I don't want anyone to fuck with our country." Even grieving characters, such as the sister of a woman killed by resisting Israeli bulldozers in the Gaza Strip, embody courageous convictions, where A Piece of My Heart relies more on therapeutic scenes of hugging and lighting candles.

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Women and War's creative ensemble holds few illusions that art can prevent war out-right — director Rachel May points out that The Lysistrata Project didn't prevent the United States from attacking Iraq. These three shows will mostly play to sympathetic audiences and have little influence beyond the stage door. Still, theater can make a difference in capturing the hearts and minds of its community, and each of these plays prove that women can fight the good fight, too.