Tammy Ryan insists she doesn't want to go to the dark places her plays tend to go, but when a subject finds her, she's all in.
In the world premiere play "Soldier's Heart," she zeroes in on the aftereffects of sexual assault in the military and its web of victims. In May, a Defense Department study revealed that 26,000 service members have said they were sexually assaulted during the past year, compared to the already unimaginable number of 19,300 in a 2010 study.
The horror and justice came to the attention of Ms. Ryan in several ways before she began writing about Casey Johnson, a single mother whose nine-month deployment to Iraq becomes a nightmare on and off the battlefield and continues when she returns to her family. The Rep, Point Park University's pro company, opens "Soldier's Heart" at the Pittsburgh Playhouse Friday.
"This is an old story, going back to Tailhook in the 1990s, where stories would come up but they didn't get a lot of press," Ms. Ryan said of the out-of-control assaults of women and men at a military symposium in Las Vegas. "Then in 2008, there was an article in The New York Times that was specifically about this epidemic, and they used that word. They talked about the numbers and how few were prosecuted and I was like, wow, that's crazy."
Other touchstones sent up flares that this was a story the award-winning playwright and Point Park University instructor had to tell.
When her daughter was in kindergarten, she had a friend whose mother was gone for nine months. "I didn't even know she was in the military until one day she was standing next to me dressed in her Desert Storm khakis and told me she was deploying like the next day. I couldn't wrap my mind around that, how you could do that. I didn't think I could leave my kindergartner, and I started thinking about what that was like for those parents and kids."
Haunting news stories about how certain cultures use rape as a strategy also plagued her thoughts and figured into her decision to write "Soldier's Heart."
"I read about the irony of war where there basically are no front lines in combat and even though [American] women were not permitted in combat at that time, they have to worry about their fellow soldiers. Also around that time, you would read about how rape was a weapon of war, like in Bosnia and the Congo, and I was like, wow, is anyone making the connection here?"
Ms. Ryan conducted research and interviews before attacking the subject the way she does in most of her plays, from the point of view of a single family, struggling with realities beyond comprehension. In "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods," she brought us into close contact with a victim of Sudan's civil war. In "Soldier's Heart," we meet capable Casey from the day she has to leave her 10-year-old son, Sean, in the care of her mother and his father, a fellow soldier, to go off to war.
She has every move planned down to the color coding for her more carefree mom, who is incredulous at all the detail. "I raised you, didn't I? And look at you. I'm so proud."
When Casey returns, she's a changed woman, unable to deal with the slightest responsibility and pushing away anyone who loves her. Through flashbacks and a few surprises, her story unfolds, and we discover if there is any way to heal this particular soldier's heart.
Ms. Ryan was in on the auditions with director John Amplas when Marie Elena O'Brien was cast as Casey Johnson.
"She's a Point Park alum who has been working in New York, and she's just tremendous," Ms. Ryan said. "If you want a reason to come see the play, it's to come see her rip up the room. She's such a brave and vulnerable actress, and she made me realize that that's the kind of actress this part needs. There's no denying this character with her in the role."
Among the rest of the cast, her son is played by eighth-grader Sundiata Rice, with Elijah Reese as his father, Kevin; Jenna Cole as Margie, Casey's mother; and Michael Fuller as Casey's superior officer, Capt. Christopher Baines.
As someone who has no military experience, Ms. Ryan turned to a Marine who has helped her vet the play for authenticity.
"There are things like, you wouldn't salute there, stuff like that. That was the thing I was most caught up in, like, what are the ranks? I have to understand the rank system. What's the jargon? How do they speak to each other? I was really focused on that language. He and a woman he was in I-raq with -- they say 'I-raq,' not 'Er-raq.' They make fun of us if we say it that way -- came to the reading last November, and she responded really well, too. And I was so afraid, because I'm imagining something. ... It's also about things that they probably want to hide; it's not something they want to admit they are suffering from."
Ms. Ryan speaks fast and ideas spill out one after the other, so that you wonder how one play can contain her journey to writing "Soldier's Heart." She references the documentary "The Invisible War" and Rachel Maddow's book "Drift" as validations of conclusions she had already drawn from her own extensive research.
And she makes no bones about where the experience of writing this play has taken her.
"I think this is an antiwar play, because that's the way I feel. You absolutely respect these people because they have such integrity about what they are doing in spite of the fact that it's really not fair."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published September 26, 2013 4:00 AM