Our veterans are returning home, in record numbers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Though they may be physically whole and appear well on the outside, but they’ve been emotionally and mentally ravaged by the killing zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. What happens even after they’ve received treatment and drug interventions? Will they ever be able to deal or heal?
This is a basic theme of One Night, Charles Fuller’s searing and solidly crafted drama about the impact of the emotional wounds of war which continually upend our veterans’ abilities to live peaceful, regular lives outside war zones. Fuller’s powerful character portrayals of vets, Corporal Horace Lloyd (in a sterling performance by Grantham Coleman), and Sargent Alicia G. (a powerful, engaging and emotionally driven Rutina Wesley) rivet the audience, building complexity throughout the play to the stark conclusion. Fuller’s brilliant writing with each stroke and in each scene strengthens the basic premise and pounds out a theme of even greater relevance: women’s service in the military and their treatment by their fellow soldiers.
Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of A Soldier’s Play, creates immediate tension at the outset. Vets Horace and Alicia burst through the door of a seedy motel room without clothing or any belongings, save Horace’s manila envelop holding a few documents. We learn they’ve barely escaped from a fire in a shelter where they had been living. They were given this room to spend the night until they receive better accommodations. The motel keeper is a predatory type (a beautifully realized performance by Cortez Nance Jr.) whom, we note, is salivating at the presence of disheveled, discomposed Alicia.
We understand that they have landed in one of “those” motels and we understand that Horace is going to have to protect Alicia in this untenable situation from the leering Meny and any others. Alicia is vulnerable and emotionally debilitated; PTSD has backed her into a corner and she can barely make it to the next minute without cringing at the hallucinations of the Sandbox (jargon for the Iraq desert) with visits from an intrusive medic and others. Though Horace also suffers PTSD and has the shakes, he appears to be stronger and is in the lead. He controls their relationship. She is completely dependent upon him for her care, her understanding of their current reality, the situation they find themselves in, and how they are going to get through this one night in this menacing motel.
As they try to settle in and get some rest, the conflicts abound; we come to understand the depth of the trauma they’ve suffered and will continue to suffer, manifested by the content of the flashbacks, hallucinations and their anxiety. Aggression and the potential for violence flares up from their unconscious. The hellish incidents are triggered by seemingly mundane and benign factors. They try to deal; they are on meds. However, their, relationship, the nature of which remains opaque, does little to diffuse the tremulous, strained emotional impact they have on each other.
Through interruptions from Meny (who challenges their identity and purpose at the motel), phone calls from a friend of Horace’s, periodic hallucinations each suffers through, a visit from a bellicose sheriff, and incisive questions from the fire marshal, Horace and Alicia become more unhinged. Fuller’s suspenseful, illuminating writing has constructed a psychological relationship between the two vets which we know is headed toward a violent confrontation.
When both are forced to confront what happened to Alicia one night back at the forward operating Base Taylor, it is a revelation that one of them cannot endure. It is a revelation that frees the other. For the audience comes an illumination that shines through the darkness of the military’s complacent corruptions which victimize both men and women vets alike. This is an invisible, nascent corruption born of war, nurtured by wartime alienation and encouraged by a disaffected, closed bureaucracy. It is a corruption which breeds cultural disaffection for our vets. It fosters the notion to our vets that they are being thrown on the slag heap of a refuse pile, after their vitality and substance has been mined through and used up by the military.
The production shouts out these themes and many more through Clinton Turner Davis’ tight, logical direction. The clarity is so welcome and we are completely present, on edge, watching to see Grantham Coleman and Rutina Wesley deliver the power of Horace’s and Alicia next unscrambling of emotions. What is truly a reckoning for this ensemble cast is the very real and believable performances, especially for the leads. Their underlying sense of danger, fear, and torment pitted against their hurt and helplessness bring us to a place of empathy. We never lose sight of suffering humanity, especially at the conclusion.
This is a powerful production thanks to Davis’ direction and the performances of Grantham Coleman, Rutina Wesley, Cortez Nance Jr. with support by Matthew Montelongo (Army Major, State Trooper, Troop 1, Fire Marshall) and K.K. Moggie (Medic, Lieutenant, Troop 2 Captain/Doctor, Interviewer). It is an important production which should be seen for its vital performances, its potent messages and its cultural currency.
One Night is being presented by The Cherry Lane Theatre and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at the Cherry Lane Theatre under the direction of Angelina Fiordellisi. It is running until December 15th.
5% of ticket proceeds benefit IAVA, the first and largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.