Arms and the woman
Actress Heather Grayson turns her traumatizing Gulf War experience as an ordnance-disposal expert into a stunning, emotion-filled, one-woman theater piece in "After the Storm."
By JOSHUA TANZER
(Originally reviewed at Access Theater in downtown Manhattan shortly before Sept. 11, 2001)
Heather Grayson is not what she seems. We get a sense of this even before "After the Storm" begins, as some catchy girl-pop on the loudspeaker gives way to Lee Greenwood's semi-official Gulf War anthem "God Bless the U.S.A." and then the Rolling Stones. We see successive sides of Grayson too, from girlish Southern coed to gung-ho soldier to jaded vet in this powerful one-woman show based on her experience in the Gulf War.
The perky but slightly tipsy coed comes out in a tasteful blue top and black skirt with a tall drink in her hand, as if at a college graduation party. She cheerfully describes a dream she's had about a big, deadly flash and insists that her more liberal-artsy friend interpret it for her.|
"Oh come on, you read all that Joseph Campbell," she says. "ROTC has taken away all my literary capacity, and the Army will suck the rest out of me. I've been an Army officer for all of 10 hours and I can feel my intelligence slipping away."
Suddenly we're in the desert and as this rather innocent belle changes into her camouflage fatigues, the military's mark is obvious on her body itself. Under her feminine exterior, she's strongly built with muscular arms and steely abs in many ways the ideal kickass woman of the '90s, the decade of Hillary Clinton, Janet Reno, Brandi Chastain and countless tennis goddesses.
After a rather humorous introduction to a woman's life in the man's Army (she credits her selection for Persian Gulf duty to the "big boob theory"), we get to the heart of the show a heart-wrenching story about leading an ordnance-disposal unit.
At first, she's excited when, as the war is being wrapped up, an ammunition stockpile explodes in the largest such incident since the Vietnam War and it's time to go in and do the job she was trained for. This is no classroom exercise where the professor shouts "Kablam!" when you make a mistake with an unexploded bomb, she notes with bravado. "This is, do your job right or else Psshht! pink mist!"|
Unfortunately, that description is all too accurate when it comes to an accident that claims the lives of three men under her command. This becomes the focus of the show, as she grapples with both the tragedy itself and the official accusations that her "leadership failure" caused the deaths.
There are several themes skillfully woven through "After the Storm" some very traditional in soldiers' stories, like the politics of a rigid military bureaucracy and the anguish of losing comrades; and others modern and less familiar, like how a woman can be taken seriously in the male-dominated Army and how she adapts to a system in which emotionalism is suppressed as a dangerous sign of weakness. It's not Oprah out there.
Some individual moments stand out, like after the deaths when she snarls to herself, "I still haven't cried," as if it's a duty she forgot to schedule. And there's a masterfully acted interrogation scene in which Grayson shows signs of grief and fear masked by professionalism as she tries to maintain her soldierly efficiency. And these are all part of the bigger question about what happens when, as the coed breezily notes at the beginning, the military substitutes obeying for thinking in a person's mind.
All in all, "After the Storm" is both a dramatic achievement and a moving personal statement. Apparently it has captured the attention of some female veterans in New York and beyond some out-of-towners have planned trips to the city to see the show and a veterans group plans to have a "talkback" session after the Saturday matinee on Sept. 15. Judging from this show, there's a lot to talk about, much of it left unsaid up to now.
|SEPTEMBER 12, 2001|
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