Photo of Erin Treadway by Russ Rowland.
by Billy McEntee
Though Jesse (Erin Treadway) has returned home from military service, she says she felt safer abroad. There, her comrades took care of her, as opposed to her compatriots who gaslight her, misunderstand her, and question whether she — a woman — actually served.
War Dreamer — by Leegrid Stevens, now playing at The Wild Project and produced by Loading Dock Theatre — is a homecoming play with a twist, and it is at its most narratively interesting when it explores Jesse’s conflicting desire to remain stateside with her daughter (Poppy Luch at this reviewed performance) or return to the warfront, early 2000s Iraq. Her husband (Shawn J. Davis) wrestles with the gender politics of being a military spouse, her doctor (E. James Ford) inadvertently compares veterans to lab mice, and her Walmart boss (Miles Purinton) only cares about Jesse’s performance on the floor, PTSD and cranky customers be damned. Also present is a Veterans Administration manager (Stevens acts in this role), who bookends the play, sterile light above and clipboard in hand, and remains on stage throughout, illuminating the outsize role the government plays in determining the success, or lack thereof, in veterans’ reintegration.
Stevens also co-directs, with Jacob Titus, this flexible, muscular production where C De La Cruz’s unit set transforms with Jesse’s perceived reality: the center stage seating area shape shifts from suburban car into military Humvee or war aircraft into a living room couch. Battling traumatic brain injuries and other physical and mental ailments, Jesse’s home life often blurs with her service (where fellow army man, Anders, played by Sam Tilles, accompanies her). A Walmart barcode scanner becomes an armed weapon; a doctor’s pad is also a helicopter steering wheel.
War Dreamer’s first act largely chronicles Jesse’s attempts to perform normalcy even as she suspects government-injected subdermal machines may be manipulating her from the inside out; the act closes in such a confounding way that many audience members were unsure if the play was over. If this was an attempt to evoke the confusion Jesse feels, pulled between two worlds, it was effective. The abrupt ending to Act I could have set up a bumpy or unnecessary Act II; instead, that is when Stevens’ script starts blazing. The second act engagingly plays with genre via psychological horror as the domestic world of work, health, and family Jesse barely holds together crumbles like the walls of Jericho. Emphasizing this tension, the impressive electronic score (also by Stevens) pulses with anxiety and danger.
The entire cast is strong, but in the central performance Treadway is omnipotent. She accesses a deeper range of her vocal register, revealing both Jesse’s innate toughness but also her method of adapting to a masculine world — it’s no coincidence Jesse is the only adult woman in Stevens’ play. This intonation’s depths give way for fragile moments when Treadway’s voice rises, catches, and cracks. These vulnerabilities, when Treadway works through the layers of who she was in Iraq, who others perceive her to be back home, and who she is trying to become, are the most compelling in War Dreamer.
The play neither glamorizes nor empathizes the military experience, and no matter your take on patriotism, Treadway’s performance calls for fireworks.
The Wild Project
Now playing through March 25