In The News
Well Arts Institute
Best Words To Live By
November 9, 2007
Talk Heals War’s Hidden Horror
Author: INARA VERZEMNIEKS; The Oregonian
Section: Arts & Entertainment
Perhaps your family history is full of the same silences: War years. Missing years. Memories never spoken of, yet revisited each time your grandfather suddenly stalked off to sit, mute, in the darkened living room, rocking, his hands flapping about like injured birds in his lap.
So it was both moving and a little overwhelming on a recent Sunday night to sit in a darkened theater and listen to war story after war story spoken out loud.
The performance, called “Sharing War Secrets,” featured actors reading the words of veterans from the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, and was a project of Well Arts Institute, an organization that helps people living with illnesses such as cancer and addiction and multiple sclerosis, to write their stories and transform them into public performances. The performance will repeat twice on Sunday and once Monday on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Second Stage.
In the case of “Sharing War Secrets,” the writers were all living with post-traumatic stress disorder, and reminders of this fact were never far away: A table in the lobby that held stacks of pamphlets on recognizing PTSD, places to go for help, advice for family members: “We have to let them be in pain. We have to feel our own pain.” A poster-board display featured writings by the wives of veterans. “We challenge you to fight this war as courageously as the one you fought on the battlefield,” wrote Sharon Rothenfluch Cooper, the wife of a Korean veteran. “Get help –share –weep –and heal.”
An announcement before the performance began that there were counselors in the audience tonight –and could they please stand –in case anyone wanted to talk afterward.
There was something, too, about the way the evening unfolded, the way each veteran was revealed, stepping forward to take the stage as the actor finished reading that veteran’s words. Even though you knew it was coming, it was a surprise each time, a sense of wonder and sadness as to who would claim this story. Who among us had lived through this? Who had worked as an Army nurse in Vietnam –who thought still about the 18-year-old soldier who lost his arms, the 9-year-old burned by an explosion while rummaging through the dump, and all the patients she could not save? Who was the man who went on to work with children after he came home from Vietnam –who could not help wondering each time he saw them how many Vietnamese children of the same age had died because of the bombs he helped assemble?
One veteran, Sean Lewis, who served in the first Gulf War, read his own piece, the story of a beer stein that now doubles as his morning coffee mug and the memories that it ties him to, both beautiful and devastating.
“I will enjoy the things normal people enjoy,” he says at one point. After the performance, sitting together in the foyer, Lewis told me that line is essentially the fulcrum of his piece. “This was my first public declaration of my intention to get better,” he said. “This was my public declaration to myself, to my children, to whoever was sitting there.” This year, for the first time, he said, he went out and enjoyed fireworks. (It’s amazing how much a Roman candle sounds like a Patriot Missile, he remarks in his piece.) In August, he went camping –and stayed in a tent –for the first time since he was in the Army. He sounded so happy.
For some reason, this made me think of a moment that had nothing to do with anything that had happened onstage. At one point, during one of the monologues, I happened to glance over at one of the veterans, a young man. I watched as he reached out and laced his fingers though the hand of the woman next to him. In her lap, a baby slept. I watched them for maybe longer than I should have, but for some reason, at that time, it was the story I needed to see.
“Sharing War Secrets” repeats at 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, and at 7 p.m. Monday. Artists Repertory Theatre’s Second Stage, 1516 S.W. Alder St. (enter on Southwest Morrison Street). $19; $10 seniors, students and veterans
Copyright (c) 2007 Oregonian Publishing Co.
Record Number: MERLIN_10829590