War Dreamer is a compelling exploration into the psychology of a female veteran who served in Iraq. It is a depiction of the struggles of a veteran to make sense of the memories, nightmares, paranormal events, and mental dislocations that intrude daily. Those experiences are more than a function of post-traumatic stress disorder. They result from a life lived in the alien world of war and all that is that experience. The play is a frighteningly accurate presentation of the process that some veterans must navigate as they try to return to a “normal” life.
Written by Leegrid Stevens, War Dreamer has a storyline that is not straightforward in time and place. It is disconnected from a regular flow of action, with jumps in time, place and reality. However, he skillfully keeps the audience guessing what is real and what is not without losing the story’s underlying thread. Stevens makes the audience both witness and participant as he brilliantly weaves his story of trauma and disassociation.
Stevens tells us that the common theme for most veterans is that “they were often confused about their purpose, flooded with rumors and misinformation, disillusioned with their leadership, all while being subjected to traumatic and horrific events.” After living through the traumatic and horrific events of war, they return to an unimaginable new reality back home in America.
Jesse Jennings, beautifully played by Erin Treadway, is a veteran of the war in Iraq. She is back home with her husband Dustin (Shawn J. Davis), trying to readjust to life as it once was, but she is bedeviled by the demons she carries with her from her time in the other reality. The world of her military unit operated like a psychological cocoon, protecting them from the immediate effects of their reality but also adding other elements to their shared experiences, such as rumors and misinformation, disillusionment with leadership, and conspiracy theories. This latter element has a prominent place in Jesse’s mind.
We are first introduced to Jesse as she is being interviewed by a Veterans Affairs psychologist (Leegrid Stevens). As he begins conversing with her, she is distracted by a child sitting nearby, holding a video game controller. For a moment, she is still engaged with the VA psychologist but then shifts into a conversation with the child as the light slowly fades from the VA psychologist. It is our introduction to her perceptions of the time and place she thinks she is in, but we don’t know which event is real and which is a disconnect from reality.
The sliding in and out of reality is skillfully done through movement, sound, and lighting. Characters will enter a scene as her perception shifts, and when that action shifts, the lighting on them dims, and the characters slowly move, robotically, out of the scene, like a fading memory. Through this process, we are introduced to various characters, all of whom may or may not be real to Jesse, including her 10-year-old daughter Alex (alternated by Poppy Luch, Rowan Luch and Ruby Titus at different performances).
Leegrid Stevens and Jacob Titus direct an excellent cast, two of whom play multiple characters. These actors’ performances are so effective that I was unsure how many were in the show, an indication of the skill of the actors, playwright, and director in achieving the dislocation of perception.
James Ford takes on three radically different characters so effectively that it takes a moment to realize that it is the same actor. Miles Purinton has two roles that are less distinct in characteristics, but his performance as the manager of the Walmart at which Jesse works, skillfully adds another dimension to the confusion and disorientation that confronts Jesse daily.
Of the singular roles, Sam Tilles as Anders, the sergeant leading Jesse’s platoon in Iraq, provides important clues into Jesse’s mental state as his character goes through a range of behavioral changes ranging from a focused authority figure to a delusional man ranting about biblical stories being played out in the Iraq War to conspiracy theories about very tiny electronic circuits being injected into soldiers by the military. This last element plays a significant role in the delusions manifested by Jesse.
Shawn J. Davis as Jesse’s husband, Dustin, delivers the character from several perspectives. At times he behaves as he appears in the complicated perceptions of Jesse and at other times in the reality of the people around her. This fluctuation of characterization is another essential element in the disequilibration structure of the production.
The set design by C De la Cruz effectively adds to the mental disorientation of Jesse by being relatively bare-bones with a steam-punk look. Their design allows the shifts in reality, to manifest without distracting from the central idea of what is real and what is delusional.
As affecting as the set design is, and the outstanding performances of the cast, the lighting, special effects and sound design are critical elements to the success of this show. Stoli Stolnack’s lighting design works seamlessly to move the action from point to point and to provide strong support for the special effects. Toshi Salvino’s special effects and make-up effectively deliver important visual cues to the story’s underlying themes, sometimes in surprising ways. And the sound design by author-director Stevens, using an original electronic score, creates an aural ambiance that operates as another character in the story, at times soothing and at other moments jarring, and sometimes with tones that make the chairs seem to vibrate. This sound design is integral to the whole experience, even with a musical component playing during the intermission.
Three other members of the production team whose work is essential to the effective execution of the play are Jevyn Nelms, costume design, critical to the shaping-shifting of the various characters; Justin Cox, special props that add physical elements crucial to moments being played out; and Jonathan Taikina Taylor, movement design, whose work is evident in all of the shifts in reality.
War Dreamer (through March 25, 2023)
Loading Dock Theatre in association with Wild Project
Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.loadingdocktheatre.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission