With what have commonly been called two of America’s longest-running wars stretching on endlessly, many theatre artists have been asking themselves what they can do about the social divide between civilians and the military. Enter playwright Kathleen Cahill, who spent a year conducting interviews with veterans after becoming interested in the modern combat’s shifting gender dynamics. The result, 2017’s Harbur Gate, is not a transcription of those interviews, but is a masterfully stylized examination of a traumatic incident and the fallout on those affected. (The name is a colloquial pronunciation of a crossing between Iraq and Turkey.) Now in its Midwest premiere at the 16th Street Theater under Ann Filmer’s direction, the play guides the audience through three scenes spanning in content from friends grappling with everyday injustice to a nearly mystical recognition of shared experience.
A Telescoping Journey into the Mind
The first paring we see is that of two Marines, Carey (Arti Ishak) and Alyson Moss (Stephanie Shum), but it quickly becomes apparent that Moss isn’t really there. The story is set in the time of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and by the pictures of Moss on Carey’s wall and the obvious sexual tension between them, we can tell Carey’s relationship with her fellow Marines and higher-ups was complicated by her sexuality. Her roommate Chad (Laurence Stepney) has applied for a Purple Heart based on his and Carey’s valor during the bombing that claimed Moss’s life, but Carey is uncomfortable with the scrutiny, as well as the acclaim it would bring. She also thinks there was something fishy about Moss’s presence on the mission, but doesn’t expect to ever get answers.
While serving to spotlight a number of issues that veterans face and their varied responses to them, this scene also eases us into a deeper exploration of what happened during the lead-up to the bombing. It is the most conventionally staged and written of the three, but a chewy bit of food for thought in itself. However, the play hits its stride in the flashback to Moss’s convoy trip with Russo (Felipe Carrasco), a brash twenty-one-year-old with responsibilities far beyond his maturity. Filmer and her design team build as hair-raisingly tense a scene as is to be found in any psychological thriller as the convoy, surrounded by surreal imagery, drives further into the nighttime desert. The interaction between Moss and Russo is likewise nerve-wracking as they shift between uneasy comradery and outright hostility, unsure of how much to trust or like each other. Both actors are magnificent in this scene, she repressed and suspicious, he chauvinistic and rebellious. Like the suspected IEDs outside, it’s impossible to know ahead of time whether there’s a threat in the car or not.
16th Street Theater’s Season of Heroes Begins with a Perfect Match
Despite the show’s brief run-time, Cahill’s writing clearly communicates how, even had the bombing not happened, the strain of the prolonged danger would have left scars. The final scene is inspired by Winslow Homer’s 1865 painting “Veteran in a New Field,” and not much should be revealed about it except that it brings a major shift in design toward the more impressionistic and provides an appropriate coda for the play’s exploration of trauma. Debbie Baños and Jay Worthington play two veterans who meet each other in a park.
Their crackling banter and the humor in Cahill’s writing contrasts with the experiences they discuss, bringing them out of the realm of the abstract and showing how the effects of betrayal and violence linger in even the littlest things. The greatest strength of Harbur Gate is how it makes big issues so intimate, which also makes it an ideal show for the small and always empathetic 16th Street (although they have recently increased their seating). Shows about PTSD are a tough sell, but this one, without condescension, foregrounds the fullness of the characters’ humanity and does so with a beautiful artifice unique to the theatrical experience.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
16th Street Theater
6420 16th Street, Berwyn, Illinois
Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm
Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm
Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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