Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Andrew Neftalí Perez with the ensemble of Griffin Theatre Company’s LETTERS HOME. Photo by Evan Hanover.
By Bec Willett
Running in rotating repertory with GHOSTS OF WAR, Griffin Theatre Company’s LETTERS HOME is a documentary play exploring personal experiences of those involved in the U.S. armed forces in the Iraq war.
The power of putting people’s real words on stage is undeniable. Upon learning that LETTERS HOME toured nationally for a number of years, it evoked for me a vivid image of a high schooler watching the performance. Enraptured at their first time hearing and seeing the war through a lens with which they could identify, with words of those only a few years older than themselves, I can imagine it is a life-changing experience. However, when taken out of this touring context and put into an established theater space it lacks the necessary support of a greater range of theatrical devices.
LETTERS HOME is ninety minutes of letters in monologue form backed by a projected collage of pictures from the war. Many of the characters – from different ranks, specialties, and areas of the armed forces – appear more than once, allowing us to create individual narratives by giving us glimpses into their personal journey at different points of the time. However, the minimal blocking and rudimentary stage pictures mean that each performer is primarily standing or sitting still for the length of the play, rarely providing visual cues to deepen the narrative.
The style of any documentary play, especially one entirely composed of monologues, requires actors to utilize specific techniques. In this case, many actors struggled to master them, unable to fully invest or find emotional nuance in their portrayals. Fortunately, some actors, such as Ryan McBride, are able to wholly embrace the style, along with expert storytelling from Andrew Neftalí Perez, Leah Raidt, and Jessica Dean Turner.
While the use of real words from those in the dire circumstance of war make the concept of LETTERS HOME a powerful one, greater employment of a full range of theatrical devices would allow the performance of these words to truly hit home, no matter the context.