Review by Samuel L. Leiter
Like so many dramas inspired by wartime situations, Rehana Lew Mirza’s Soldier X—produced by the Ma-Yi Theater Company, devoted to plays by Asian Americans—is not so much about a specific conflict as it’s about how war affects its participants and their loved ones. Soldier X, though sited in and around Camp Pendleton in San Diego, is set against the background of American involvement in Afghanistan; it touches on such serious issues as PTSD, violence toward women, racial attitudes, anti-Muslim bias, death by friendly fire, guilt, truth, and survival, but the war going on could be any war.
Still, the hostilities in the Middle East give Ms. Mirza’s two-act play an appropriately contemporary background, which heightens interest in an otherwise mundane romantic triangle plot. Those involved are a recently discharged African American marine, Jay Richards (Jared McNeil, solid), and two attractive young women, Amani Mehmod (Turna Mete, sincere), a Muslim of unspecified Middle Eastern heritage, and the military social worker Monica Burnes (Kaliswa Brewster, sensitive), daughter of a black American soldier and the Vietnamese war bride he abused. Jay, who may have been responsible for the death in combat of Amani’s brother, Talib, locates Amani in a coffee shop managed by her Asian American friend, Lori (Cleo Gray, all SoCal mannerisms). Jay and Amani fall in love and, to Lori’s dismay, agree to marry; Jay even agrees to become a Muslim. On the other hand, Jay can’t bring himself to tell Amani about how Talib died. What, we’re asked to wonder, is driving his romance: love or guilt?
Hoping to ensure Jay’s freedom from PTSD before they wed, Amani asks him to seek therapy, which he gets from Monica, whom we’ve already seen counseling a self-cutting female Marine, Lynn Downey (Carolyn Mitchell Smith, imposing). Lynn is suffering the trauma of having been raped by a comrade. Her reluctance to report the assault stems from distrust of a system in which women are treated miserably. Meanwhile, Monica provides weekly counseling to Jay, not in her office (Jay: “I don’t do offices”), but over beers at a local bar. Need I say where this is heading?
To top it all off, Monica, who enlisted when a recruiter promised she’d stay stateside, is reassigned to Afghanistan, to her great trepidation. Having signed up to earn the college education she couldn’t otherwise afford, she’s as traumatized by her life and work as anyone she treats (physician, heal thyself!).
Ms. Mirza, Ma-Yi’s first South Asian-American playwright, has created several strong scenes, and makes some sharp points about certain issues, especially the cycle of violence against women; in general, though, these are subordinate to the working out of the Amani-Jay-Monica situation. Moreover, one could compile a laundry list of moments that smack of contrivance, among the most egregious being Jay’s taking only a few minutes before agreeing to conversion; Monica’s unprofessional behavior with Lynn and Jay; and, arguably, certain out-of-character “fog of war” comments Monica dispenses in the final scene.
Lucie Tiberghien’s smooth production is abetted by Daniel Conway’s simple, simultaneous setting—accented by light-toned wood units—comprising multiple locales: coffee shop, bar, office, apartment, museum. Despite two miscast roles, Soldier X is well enough acted to give credibility to most of its less than credible situations. Regardless, I’d think this one over before enlisting.
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Through April 19 www.ma-yitheatre.org