Rehana Lew Mirza’s play, Soldier X, makes a valiant attempt at exploring the modern military and the impact of war on soldiers and their families. Attempting to address a wide range of complex issues including violence against women in the military, the war on terror, Muslim-American identity, biracial identity, inadequate medical and mental health care for veterans, and PTSD, Soldier X can’t quite do justice to them all. But within this ambitious story there are powerful moments in its depiction of military women and men struggling with what comes after war.
Monica (Kaliswa Brewster) is a military social worker trying to get her client Lance Corporal Lynn Downey (Carolyn Michelle Smith) to open up to her. Marine Jay Richards (Jared McNeill) has just finished his tour in Afghanistan but has one piece of unfinished business to attend to. Monica unexpectedly meets Jay in a coffee shop operated by happy-go-lucky Lori (Cleo Gray). Monica thinks she has a connection with Jay. But Jay finds himself instantly drawn to Amani (Turna Mete), the Muslim sister of a fallen solider and friend of his.
Like George Brant’s Grounded, the play wrestles with what it is for a soldier to return to the homefront and, also as in Grounded, Mirza is interested in gender within the military establishment and how women in the military are forced to balance their identity as soldiers with how they are perceived by the men around them. In Soldier X, the military ends up being both an escape route and a trap for these women. The play is strongest when looking at the intersection of gender and strength, bravery, and pain. Mirza shines a light on issues seldom addressed on stage including the subject of rape within military units and the struggles that these soldiers face in trying to bring their rapists to justice.
But in attempting to do and say too much, the play sacrifices clarity and overall impact. As the coincidences in Mirza’s plot start to pile up and new and complicated problems are introduced at each turn in the narrative it felt increasingly like we would never quite get beneath the surface of any of these subjects, as we moved from one to the next. Any one of these topics could be the basis of a play; some of the plot machinations were also hard to believe, which further undermined the genuinely interesting character work.
As Monica’s life spins more out of control her problems start to effect others. But there was not so much an escalation of dramatic tension with Monica as a pile-up of human trauma. Because this all happens in rapid succession without a moment to breathe, rather than get swept up in emotion, it started to feel a little numbing. There were only a few moments of levity to balance off these heavy issues. The flexible set by Daniel Conway allowed for quick scene changes and a nice reveal of projections but this unified IKEA-esque space meant we lost an opportunity to learn more about the characters and their worlds through the design as well.
The cast did their best with the material but all this topical weight meant there was not time enough to develop the characters beyond basic outlines. A particular stand-out performance was that of Carolyn Michelle Smith; she does a great job of guiding the character of Lynn from anger to resentment to resignation to buoyancy, all within her bar scene with Jay. The throbbing jaw muscle in Smith’s face that flexed as she stared down her therapist said as much about her character as any of the lines of dialogue.