Even while the Iraq wars are barely in our rearview mirror and our military is still stationed in an unstable Afghanistan, this year’s crop of political candidates are rattling sabers at ISIS and Syria. Add in Vladimir Putin’s Russia threatening to restart the Cold War, and it’s no wonder that military issues are on people’s minds. And it’s spilling over into the arts scene.
The Greater Lansing theater scene features two military-themed productions this season. In November, Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. staged “Telling: Lansing,” a play created in cooperation with the Telling Project based on the stories of local veterans. This weekend, the Wharton Center hosts a staged reading of “ReEntry,” a play based on the difficulties faced by veterans when they return home.
David Dunckel, a Lansing veteran, was an actor in “Telling: Lansing” and also stars in “ReEntry.” He isn’t surprised that the local theater groups are mounting these plays.
“Post-traumatic stress, mild traumatic brain injury, the suicide rates among veterans — those are all very topical issues that we hear and see on the news all the time,” he said.
Dunckel served for over 25 years in the U.S. military, including combat tours in Iraq. Recruiting duties often brought him back to Lansing, and during those times he acted in productions by Riverwalk Theatre, LCC and the now defunct Boarshead Theatre. For him, military plays present difficult issues in a way that is easier for the public to understand.
“I think theater has a way of engaging the audience in a way that’s much more immersive than reading a news story or watching a news broadcast,” he said. “This is a way that we, as veterans, can put these issues to the forefront of people’s minds.”
Bert Goldstein, director of the Institute for Arts & Creativity at the Wharton Center and director of this production, has a history of tackling difficult subject matter. His Wharton Center productions have taken on issues such as racism and autism. He decided to stage “ReEntry” before he knew that Peppermint Creek would be doing “Telling: Lansing.”
“I think it’s great that both theaters have taken a look at veterans’ issues,” Goldstein said. “It’s something that needs to be brought to light more fully.”
An important issue in military plays is authenticity. “ReEntry,” like “Telling: Lansing,” relies on first-hand accounts from military veterans.
“The playwrights didn’t invent this stuff,” Goldstein said. “They interviewed a lot of people and then consolidated all of this into a very tight, 90-minute script. It’s largely a series of monologues, so it has a real truth to it that couldn’t have been invented otherwise. We’re proud to be doing it.”
For Dunckel, acting and combat have an intimate connection.
“I got through combat primarily by acting,” he said. “I had a relatively dangerous position, and I relied on the old World War II movies. I stuck a cigar in the corner of my mouth and a bandana on my head, and I acted my way through combat.”
But when he returned from the war, he found a new set of problems.
“You can’t act your way through posttraumatic stress. You can’t act your way away from the demons that are chasing you,” Dunckel said.
While “ReEntry” delves into serious issues, it does have lighter moments.
“It’s not all gloom and doom; there’s a lot of humor in the play — a surprising amount of humor,” Goldstein said. “Sometimes it’s a gallows humor, sometimes it’s a self-deprecating humor.”
But he does warn that the material is intense, and the show is recommended for viewers 16 or older.
“It’s a journey you may not want to go on,” said Goldstein, “But if you’re a veteran or know someone who is a veteran, I think the play will be cathartic for you. And if you’re not a veteran, it will be an incredible learning experience, as to what they’re going through, because the play really personalizes that in a very human way.”
Representatives from Stiggy’s Dogs will attend both shows and will have therapy dogs available in the Wharton Center lobby. The organization trains rescue dogs to be service animals for veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury.
“If there’s a veteran or family member who feels that the material is so intense they need to take a break, there will be therapy dogs there,” Goldstein said. “I think it’s fantastic what they do for veterans by providing this service.”
Dunckel hopes that these military-themed productions will help the public to empathize with what soldiers are going through.
“When an audience member walks away from something like ‘ReEntry’ or ‘Telling: Lansing,’ not only will they continue to thank people for their service, but they will be much more inclined to ask someone, ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘How are you handling your experiences?’” Dunckel said. “Many times, that’s all it takes. Many veterans don’t think anybody can relate because they don’t think anybody really cares. If you show you care, that will make a big difference in changing our whole society’s view on reentering service members.”
Wharton Center Theatre 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26 and Saturday, Feb. 27 $13/$8 veterans/$5 MSU students Pasant Theatre Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com