A man and a woman are lying in bed together when he is gripped with a night terror. He tries to punch her, but she rolls away in time, only to be struck by his second blow. She goes sprawling; he returns to regular sleep, unaware that anything has happened. This is the opening of Aline Lathrop’s new play The Hero’s Wife, now playing at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater. A fast-paced one-act, it uses two richly drawn characters to explore what it means to love someone with a mental illness and where to draw the line at how much self-sacrifice to invest in a marriage.
How to Love a Stranger
Karyssa (Alex Fisher) is a twenty-three-year-old woman newly married to Cameron (Aaron Christensen), who recently retired out of the Navy SEALs. They had a brief courtship, during which attacks such as the one at the beginning of the play apparently did not happen, but Cam’s final mission was rough. In fact, he was presumed dead for a time. Karyssa is overjoyed to have him back, and even after the night terrors begin, she has reasons to stay with him (there could hardly be a story otherwise.) She figures out through trial-and-error that she can calm him down by saying his name as long as she wakes up in time. The other military wives questioned her devotion and she wants to prove them wrong. And she figures Cam can always get therapy if things get “worse.” That situation isn’t tenable for long, and the two soon begin a dance where something vital in their marriage remains unsaid. But what Cam thinks is going unsaid isn’t what Karyssa knows.
Two Complex People with Difficulty Connecting
“No one ever really knows another person, do they?” Karyssa asks. Alex Fisher’s understated performance is marvelous. We don’t find out a whole lot about Karyssa’s backstory, yet we get a very strong sense of her. She’s practical but unpracticed; Cam’s reluctance to get a job is easier for her to confront him about than the threat he poses. She’s curious, and Cam talks about things in his sleep he won’t tell her when he’s awake. And though she is nowhere near Cam’s size, she is a full-time yoga instructor and doesn’t like to admit weakness, either. Aaron Christensen’s Cam is a man mature enough to be confident in his sense of self, and he really doesn’t like anything that rattles it. Their age disparity leads him to assume a position of authority over Karyssa, whom he idealizes. But he knows to take her seriously and can admit to being wrong when something innocuous hasn’t sent him into battle-mode. There’s affection between them, but a persistent distance on a deeper level.
16th Street Theater Creates Nightmarish Atmosphere
Under the direction of Ann Filmer and Miguel Nuñez, the play has a quality of being in perpetual night. Often, Cat Wilson’s lights are the loudest things onstage, and sound designer Barry Bennett exaggerates their hum. Even in day, Cam keeps the house dark while he plays Halo. Set designer Joanna Iwanicka has created a world of curved carpeted walls that look comfortable but are reminiscent of the isolation on a submarine or a space station. The doors are not visible. The fight scenes by R&D Choreography are moments of extreme intensity, and their shadow hangs over everything. Lathrop’s dialogue mostly is made up of just a few words per line, just enough to convey changes in the situation. Her characters are not stupid; they’ve heard the same things we have about what they ought to do, but Lathrop shows why that’s hard. There’s a strong sense of dread at work, but also of compassion and a possibility for surprise.
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.
Berwyn Cultural Center
6420 16th Street, Berwyn
Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm
Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm
Post-show discussions Thursdays and Fridays
Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission
Through August 18
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago
$22 or $18 for Berwyn residents, military, low income
Group discounts for groups of 8+
For tickets call 708 795 6704 or visit the 16th Street Theater Website
Photos credit: Anthony Aicardi
Aaron Christensen (Cameron), Alex Fisher (Karyssa)
Understodies: Emily Dyer, Steven Winterstein,
Production: Aline Lathrop (Playwright), Ann Filmer (Co-Director), Miguel Nuñez (Co-Director), Joanna Iwanicka (Set), Barry Bennett (Music and Sound), Cat Wilson (Lights), Rachel Sypniewski (Costumes), Victor Bayona (Violence), Rick Gilbert (Violence), Wendye Clarendon (Stage Manager), Jamie Karas (Props)
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.
Click here to find more Picture This Post articles by Jacob Davis.