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The most profound and powerful thing about Utah playwright Kathleen Cahill's "Harbur Gate," making its world premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company, is how deceptively simple it seems. The structure and dialogue of its three interlocked plays couldn't be more straightforward; each one depicts a man and a woman involved in a pared-down, uncluttered situation.
Yet what we get is so much more than what we see. At the same time the plays chronicle gender discrimination and sexual abuse in the military without ever becoming manipulative or preachy they put us in touch with the shattering experience of going to war in Iraq. The plays work on a multitude of levels: natural and supernatural, literal and metaphorical, realistic and surreal, spiritual and visceral. It is like shaking a children's toy box and having a brightly colored dragon burst out.
In the first play, "Orpheus," two Army medics, Chad (Matthew Sincell) and Carey (Natalia Noble), are about to get Purple Hearts for valor in combat. Orpheus, you may remember, is the character from Greek mythology who went to hell and came back. Carey lost her best friend to an IED explosion and is mired in grief and guilt; Noble adeptly juggles her chaotic mix of confusion and despair. Sincell's unabashedly gay Chad "I'm showing the world who I am and where I've been," he announces is flamboyant and funny as he tries to get her to pull herself together with the play's underlying message: "If you just keep looking back, you will never be able to go forward. You've got to go forward; that's what being alive is about."
Alyson Moss (Cassandra Stokes-Wylie) and Vincent Russo (Topher Rasmussen) are driving in a convoy truck in "Harbur Gate," the second, most compelling play. The two are arguing about the place of women in the military "men are men, and women are not," Russo maintains when an incident the one that unifies the three plays occurs. "Harbur Gate" beautifully balances real and surreal, and Rasmussen and Stokes-Wylie make a seamless transition between prickly animosity and the compassionate moments that unite them at the play's end, where they become like mother and child.
The third play, "Veteran in a New Field," is the most metaphorical, counterpointing images of blindness and seeing. Michelle (Ariana Broumas Farber) is a veteran with PTSD who "see[s] things that aren't there," while John (Lane Richins), a blind painter, has exchanged sight for insight. The title comes from a Winslow Homer painting John uses for inspiration, but both characters are veterans in a new field. John comforts Michelle with the observation, "Sometimes … you get to begin again. … You get to live … on a whole different level. … You exist in your own contradiction. … The pain allows you to heal." Farber vacillates effectively from agitation and bitterness to pride and understanding, and Richins is philosophical without getting heavy-handed.
Tamilla Woodard's direction is tight but sensitive to the emotional arcs of "Harbur Gate," and she has choreographed military interludes to connect the plays. Shannon Roberts' set is stark and functional; its gray metal benches convert to a sofa, and the floor is covered with sand; these characters can't escape the desert. Jesse Portillo's evocative, constantly shifting lighting features a scrim that can look like an explosion or a metal sheet. Erin West's character-defining costumes and Jennifer Jackson's original music sharply delineate place and time.
The voices of the many veterans Cahill interviewed shine through these plays like lights in the darkness, but they interweave and connect in a patchwork of the human condition that is all her own. This play, Cahill's most accomplished to date, is indelible testimony to their resilience and diversity.
Kathleen Cahill's new play paints a powerful portrait of the experiences of Iraq War veterans and the sexual trauma and gender discrimination they encountered in the military.
When • Reviewed on Feb. 10; plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6 p.m., through March 12. Additional performances Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, March 11, at 2 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15 to $42 with discounts for students, seniors, groups and those under 30; 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org; contains adult language and material
Running time • 90 minutes (no intermission)
Note • A free panel discussion titled "The Good, the Bad, and the Unspoken," sponsored by Utah Humanities, will take place on Sunday, March 5, at 2:30 p.m. after the matinee performance.