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Theater of War presents reading of Socrates’ “Ajax” at Stony Brook

 

Martha Plimpton, above, won an Emmy award for her role as Virginia Chance in FOX's comedy "Raising Hope." NEWSDAY / TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
Martha Plimpton, above, won an Emmy award for her role as Virginia Chance in FOX’s comedy “Raising Hope.” NEWSDAY / TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

An audience settled into the Student Activities Center Auditorium on Wednesday to see a staged reading of a nearly 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ “Ajax.”

Reg E. Cathey (“The Wire,” “House of Cards”) played Ajax, a soldier who fought in the mythical war on Troy, and Martha Plimpton (“The Good Wife,” “Raising Hope”) played his wife, Tecmessa.

The reading and the following discussion was directed by Bryan Doerries, who also created the translation used.

Doerries is the founder of Theater of War and the larger performance company it is a part of, Outside The Wire.

Outside The Wire was brought to campus in part through the efforts of Professor Roger Thompson. Thompson applied for one of Stony Brook’s Presidential Mini-Grants for Departmental Diversity Initiatives, which helped fund the performance.

Theater of War’s goal with this program was to facilitate discourse between active soldiers, veterans, families, caregivers and other citizens. To do this, the group uses selections from ancient plays as material and inspiration for discussion.

According to Outside The Wire’s website, this is because these ancient plays timelessly and universally depict the visible and invisible wounds inflicted upon warriors by war.

Theater Of War’s Facebook page states, “By presenting these plays to military audiences, our hope is to de-stigmatize psychological injury and open a safe space for dialogue.”

The play begins near the end of the Trojan War, after Ajax had lost family members and friends and had been slighted by his own generals.

He is filled with an uncontrollable rage, and Tecmessa and his soldiers struggle to help him. He wanders to a deserted beach and kills himself with a sword through his stomach.

Once the performance was over, four people who had volunteered before the show stepped up to the stage.

They all had personal experience with war and its damage. One was a trauma counselor, another a wife to a veteran and two were veterans themselves. The four people on stage touched on lines that had resonated with them.

Ajax says wrathfully “Crying is for women and cowards” and “Silence becomes a woman.”

These themes were consistent in the comments: that overseas there is often not an outlet for grief, and that upon returning home communication is difficult between a soldier and their spouse.

The conclusion was the same for everyone on stage: finding ways to develop communication and understanding helped. Some used group therapy, others counseling, and others veterans’ associations for support.

Doerries then posed questions to the group on stage and the audience: “What do you think Sophocles was doing by staging this play?” he asked.

He said that, to his surprise, soldiers have told him that they think it was to boost the moral of Sophocles’ troops. It is moral boosting “because it’s the truth,” they said.

Doerries then asked the Stony Brook audience: “If Ajax were someone you know, what would you say or do?”

One of the veterans present answered, in response to Ajax going to commit suicide: “I would tell him: ‘Sure, I’ll go to the beach with you. I’ll bring my sword, too. We’ll both do it.’ And then I’d say, ‘But let’s just do it tomorrow.’ And then I’d say that too him every day” in order to give him time.

The event was well done as both a facilitated community discussion and a type of theater. Plimpton and Cathey both delivered exceptional performances with difficult roles.

They were playing people experiencing things far beyond the normal range of human emotion, yet entirely real.

By necessity of the scene they had to shout and rage and cry, and yet the performances never became melodramatic or bombastic.

It felt merely like watching a friend go through the bleakest suffering and not knowing how to help them.

Additionally, Ajax was written by someone who understands: Sophocles was a playwright and also a soldier in a time of war.

For civilians with no connection to the military, the performance bestows understanding and empathy.

Doerries said that in response to his first question—what was Sophocles doing by staging this tragedy?—a general who attended one of the early performances answered “I think Sophocles wrote the play to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Outside the Wire’s next stop for “Theatre of War” will in April in Anchorage, Alaska.

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