March 21 2012 12:00 AM

Theater of War takes long view of war trauma

An aggrieved soldier commits a shocking slaughter. A proud democracy wages two lengthy wars that test its endurance and lead to a wrenching debate about benefit and cost.

The opening moments of "Ajax" ring eerily familiar after U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' alleged murder of 16 civilians in Afghanistan last week.  In the age of laser-guided missiles and MRAPs, a 5th-century B.C. play by Sophocles is still helping soldiers, veterans and civilians work through war and its effects.

Theater of War, a project funded by the Department of Defense, comes to East Lansing Sunday and Monday to present a dramatic reading by professional actors with a panel discussion and audience response.

The “Ajax” performances, along with next week’s Combat Papers residency (see related story) is part of “Legacies of War,” an 18-month series of programs and events on the effects of war sponsored by Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and allied units.

The program is meant to nudge the national dialogue on war past the hyped-up clash between naïve peaceniks and gung-ho warriors.

“That debate is useful to people who are trying to create a dogfight on TV or raise hackles, but peoples’ lives are much more complicated than that,” RCAH dean Stephen Esquith said. “The human costs are ignored and it just becomes a shouting match.”

Ajax, one of the heroes of the Trojan war, has some serious issues. He starts the play with a murderous rampage and ends it with suicide.

In Sophocles’ portrayal, he’s a tortured emblem of war’s scars. Two millennia later, he’s a teaching tool for the U.S. Department of Defense. “Stand-To,” the DoD’s Web site, declares that “Theater of War” is designed “to remove stigma related to psychological injuries by illustrating that many of the bravest war heroes in history have lived with the psychological effects of battle.”

“Theater of War” has toured over 200 military bases, hospitals and public forums across the country. The troupe features professionals with established theater, film and TV credits. The East Lansing cast members are Glenn Davis, Alex Morf, Polly Noonan and Zach Grenier (Edward Norton’s boss in “Fight Club”).

A community panel, including National Guard representatives and families of service members, will respond to the play afterwards. Audience members will be invited to step to the mike and talk about their own experiences.

“That’s typically the most powerful part of the evening,” Esquith said.

Theater of War:

‘Ajax’ by Sophocles

6 p.m. Sunday, March 25

Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing

7:30 p.m Monday, March 26

MSU Kellogg Center Auditorium, 55 S. Harrison Rd.


(517) 355-0210