Tammy Ryan's "Soldier's Heart," in its world premiere in the small theater at the Playhouse, is certainly about war, but not as we might expect. It takes us on a searing journey that is really an all-enveloping battle from which you can barely come up for air.
The play starts, however, with some small surprises. For one, the soldier of the title, a Marine, is a woman, Casey Johnson. For another, she's white but the father of her child and the child himself are black. This is only a small issue in the play, but it's another upset of expectation.
A weightier surprise is that the heart in the title is far from the red heart of passion or purple heart of courage you expect in a military narrative. Finally, most significantly, Casey's war, ostensibly with insurgents in Iraq, turns out to be with her own commanding officer and the institution that gives him power.
And ultimately, it becomes a war within herself. This is the searing journey we are compelled to share, one dramatic to an intense degree.
I wouldn't normally give this away, but here it is: Casey is raped by her commanding officer. You know right off that something awful happened to her in Iraq, and it doesn't take many encounters with the domineering, oddly confiding Capt. Baines to guess what it might be.
What does it do to Casey? That's the play.
The short answer is that it traumatizes her so she can't relate in any positive way to her family and friends. We watch her writhe in a hell of self-torment.
It's easy to hate the rapist and scorn the institutions that protect him and to root for Casey's mother and friends. You can barely stand Casey's agony. But you can't look away.
The play painfully forces us to share Casey's agony, to which there seems no hopeful end. But that gives "Soldier's Heart" its deeply felt authenticity: We have to settle in for the dark duration.
Why a rape victim should blame herself is a large question about how society fashions the roles we are expected to fill. The philosophic will want to ponder this. But the more experiential will simply share Casey's drama. Just as you think she might turn a corner, she spirals down again. I wish it were shorter, but I accept that the painfulness of the dramatic journey is its essence.
Engaging our heart as Casey is Marie Elena O'Brien. It takes her time to do so, because even in the first scene, where she prepares to leave for Iraq, she is curt and disengaged. Only in a profoundly affecting Skype with her 10-year-old son does she show an open heart. Ms. O'Brien makes both this and the torment of most of the play painfully real.
She is well supported by Jenna Cole as her mother and Joshua Elijah Reese as the father of her son. Mr. Reese, especially, is a potent actor of great restraint. But perhaps these characters are too supportive. We hear that both have had problems in the past, but we don't see that. I realize this focuses the story more intensely on Casey, but it introduces a touch of the unbelievable into a story that otherwise feels as authentic as gritty sand and corrugated iron.
Further support comes from Jaime Slavinsky as Hernandez, who helps flesh out both the flashbacks to Iraq and later scenes in the U.S.A. Sundiata Rice plays Casey's son. The juiciest role belongs to Michael Fuller, brilliantly cast as Capt. Baines, in whom Mr. Fuller's natural appeal and charm become particularly insidious.
Much credit goes to director John Amplas for grounding the play in the believable. Everything seems authentic. That extends to the environment created by the design: scenic (Gianni Downs), costume (Cathleen Crocker-Perry) and lights (Andrew David Ostrowski).
Beyond that is a very ambitious, dramatically effective series of projections by Jessi Sedon-Essad, abetted by the sound design of Kristopher Buggey, which take us right into Casey's fevered flashbacks.
The technical skill of all this goes a long way to compensate for the play's shortfall in filling in Casey's pre-Iraq character. The play isn't interested in her personality, you could say: It wants us to experience her drama. We certainly do.
In the automatic way journalists sometimes have, I might have referred to the playwright as "Pittsburgh's own Tammy Ryan." Yes, although she grew up in New York, she has been in Pittsburgh long enough for us to claim her. But Ms. Ryan is not so much a Pittsburgh playwright as a national one, writing, in a more and more impressive series of well-crafted plays, about national passions and themes.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. First Published October 3, 2013 4:00 AM