Lawrence Toppman

‘Outside the Wire’ yanks us beyond our comfort zones

U.S. soldiers in Iraq take a break from combat in “Outside the Wire.”
U.S. soldiers in Iraq take a break from combat in “Outside the Wire.” John McHugh

We look to theater to make the world comprehensible, to link characters’ experiences to our own and help us make sense of our lives.

But what happens when we encounter characters who have gone through things incomprehensible to most of us – thank heaven – and seem far removed from the reality we know?

That’s the question raised by “Outside the Wire,” which playwright Jimi Stanton dedicated to his brother, Army Staff Sergeant David Stanton. It’s loosely based on his experiences in Iraq a decade ago, and Davidson Community Players is presenting its regional premiere.

Perhaps the cramped stage and seating space of Armour Street Theater enhance the effectiveness of the drama: We feel trapped, not only on maneuvers in Iraq but in the dining room of Sgt. Mark Mercer (Robert Brafford) when he comes back to wife Michelle (Abbey Wade) and their unseen daughter. When the couple finally erupt in mutual frustration, they’re almost on top of us.

Director-designer Matt Merrell uses this space with maximum efficiency. The special effects, costumes and sound design take us to the combat zone, and we get to know characters through documentary-style footage projected on a screen above the stage. (That footage cleverly masks the sounds of sets being changed before our ears, in darkness.)

Stanton gives us a rounded group of soldiers. Briggs (Drue Allen) remains eternally optimistic, Porter (Aaron Marsh) justifiably paranoid. Green (Nikki Stepanek) consoles herself with thoughts of home, Young (Matthew Ensley) with bluff and braggadocio. Specialist Davis (Bill Reilly) oversees them all with calm humor.

So the play doesn’t suggest that all soldiers who’ve seen lots of action come home with PTSD. But Mercer has been hit by a triple whammy: He feels he failed his comrades in Iraq, he has no idea how to communicate his memories and feelings to civilians, and he’s drawn back toward re-enlistment, because his four-year tour brought him a kind of satisfaction he’s not getting elsewhere.

The genial, boyish Brafford wins us over quickly. At first, his responses to troubles at home seem curiously subdued, but he pries the lid off the powder keg and delivers a powerful second act. Wade, who like Brafford (and three other cast members) makes her DCP debut, has the ability to tap deeply into emotions and matches her stage husband in intensity.

By the way, the title refers to the area outside the encampment where soldiers know they’re safe; it’s a place of insecurity and anxiety you wouldn’t ordinarily visit. For many community theaters, a play like this lies “outside the wire,” in dangerous territory. Be glad DCP took the chance.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Outside the Wire

When: Through March 13 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Former N.C. Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti hosts a post-show talkback Feb. 26 and a free writing workshop for veterans Feb. 27 from 10 a.m. to noon at the theater. Playwright Jimi Stanton hosts a talkback March 5, and there’ll be other talkbacks March 3 and 11.

Where: Armour Street Theater, 307 Armour St., Davidson.

Running time: 125 minutes with one intermission

Tickets: $20 (seniors $18, students $12) if reserved; $3 more at the door.

Details: 704-892-7953 or davidsoncommunityplayers.org.

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