The ostensible hero of Aline Lathrop’s new play “The Hero’s Wife” certainly isn’t the first dramatic character we’ve ever seen who comes home from his military service in a war as a so-called “changed man”—but he could rank among the more disturbing of them.
After 19 years as a Navy SEAL, Cameron returns from Iraq with an “other-than-honorable” discharge, and with battle scars both physical and psychological. Although he refuses to open up to his wife, Karyssa, about his Middle East experiences, sharing a bed with him is all she needs to quickly sense that something is definitely awry. When she tries to tell him about the horrific nightmares he’s been having lately, he simply replies, “Why would I have nightmares?”
Why, indeed. It might have to do with those 12 days Cameron was listed as “missing in action.” Or that he was possibly captured and tortured by enemy forces. Or that he’s somehow responsible for the death of one of his fellow SEALs. Whatever the case may be, he’s prone to suddenly bolting up in bed, shouting in Arabic, and inflicting increasingly violent abuse on poor Karyssa, who happens to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That’s the startling premise of artistic director Rachel May’s Synchronicity Theatre production of “The Hero’s Wife,” a joint world premiere with Chicago’s 16th Street Theater. Given its title, Karyssa’s situation will obviously develop as the focus of the play. Running a mere 80-plus minutes, however, it also becomes readily apparent that Lathrop deprives herself —and her audience —of ample time in delving into the drama as deeply or thoroughly as it requires, in detailing Karyssa’s gradual transformation from a hapless victim to an empowered avenger.
At some indeterminate point—maybe after she observes his threatening tirade while phoning in a pizza delivery order, or before he unloads his revolver defending them against a mouse scurrying around their apartment—Karyssa eventually stops trying to persuade Cameron to seek the professional counseling that he doesn’t think he needs anyway, and she finally decides to take matters into her own hands.
At first, that means studying Arabic online, in hopes of better interpreting his cryptic late-night outbursts and thus deciphering his dark and hidden past. Later, it means sleeping on the couch at night to spare herself any further potential harm. Ultimately, it means taking him up on his offer to hit the firing range and learning how to handle a gun and shoot for herself.
There’s no denying the solid performances by Synchronicity co-stars Rebecca Robles (Horizon’s “The Wolves”) and Joe Sykes (Actor’s Express’ “Reykjavik”). Other aspects of May’s staging aren’t quite as effective; designer Kimberly Binns’ nightmarish video projections, for example, work well against a back wall of the bedroom where the characters are sleeping, but they lose some of their impact when needlessly reflected across an unoccupied kitchen or living room.
The play never minimizes the severity of the husband’s post-traumatic stress disorder, exactly, or the graphic repercussions it has on the wife. Rather, Lathrop takes it to an overblown and slanted extreme instead. By failing to establish a sufficient degree of genuine sympathy for Cameron, he seems less like a good guy gone bad, and more like just a bad guy. Without fully appreciating what Karyssa once felt for him or what the couple might have had together before the war, it somehow diminishes the gravity of everything they’ve lost in its aftermath.
“The Hero’s Wife”
Through May 5. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; 8 p.m. Monday (April 22 only). $24-$38 (Monday and Wednesday shows are pay-what-you-can). Synchronicity Theatre, 1545 Peachtree St. NW (in the Peachtree Pointe complex), Atlanta. 404-484-8636. synchrotheatre.com.
Bottom line: A grim domestic drama, at once earnest and exploitative.