A soldier yells “Incoming!” then dives to safety. Lights blink on and off as the boom of an exploding mortar round rocks the theater. Eerie, held-breath silence follows as soldiers pat themselves to make sure arms and legs are still there.
Still in one physical piece, even as their insides are fractured, they resume their activities.
Explosions, gunshots and martial noise define “Lonely Soldiers: Women at War in Iraq,” Helen Benedict’s combustible play that opened Sunday at St. Paul’s History Theatre. Directed as an immersive, gut-wrenching experience by Austene Van — the soldiers enter through the aisles and Martin Gwinup’s sound score is often overwhelming — “Lonely Soldiers” is about the impact of war on female fighters in Iraq.
Like black Americans who battled fascism abroad only to return to injustice at home during the world wars, the women warriors in Iraq fought two battles at once: one against insurgents who wanted them dead, and another against the sexism and misogyny of the men who supposedly had their backs.
“There are only three things the guys let you be if you’re a girl in the military,” Maria (Meghan Kreidler) tells us. “You’re a bitch if you won’t sleep with them, a ho if you’ve even got one boyfriend and a dyke if they don’t like you.”
A throttling, 90-minute one-act, Van’s production is a series of testimonies about the women’s experiences. Before enlisting, Sgt. Terris Dewalt-Johnson (Jamecia Bennett) lived in violence-plagued Washington, D.C. Enlisting offered an escape, and a chance to see the world.
Drill Sgt. Santiaga Flores (Rhiana Yazzie) was forced to marry a man who raped her when she was a teenager, and he continued to abuse her. The army was her escape. Sylvia Gonzalez (Hope Cervantes) grew up in small-town Wisconsin, where serving in the armed forces is just about the best thing a citizen can do. She wanted to serve her country.
All the women — there are seven in all — have their dreams shattered in Iraq, a place where they saw unspeakable things. Miriam Ruffalo (Dawn Brodey) leaves after she is sexually assaulted.
The acting company, rounded out by Shana Berg, Tamara Clark and Santino Craven, delivers the power and pain of their characters compellingly. They raise their voices to command us and sometimes go quiet to draw us in.
Craven, the only man in the production, plays all the male characters, from tender father to drunken victimizer to stern commander.
Sometimes, the theater is about character development or entertainment. Sometimes, it transports us to imaginative places. “Lonely Soldiers” is a production about the urgent need to listen to women warriors whose scars remain open and whose battles continue long after their guns have been silenced.
Rohan Preston 612-673-4390