By Daniel Damiano; Directed by Kathy Gail MacGowan
Produced by fandango 4 Art House
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 11.22.15
IATI Theater, 64 East 4th Street
by Artem Yatsunov on 11.12.15
Brooke Turner and Galen Murphy-Hoffman in The Dishonorable Discharge Of Private Pitts. Photo courtesy of DDPR.
BOTTOM LINE: Loosely based on true events, this fierce character study of a young Texan female soldier caught in a hugely public scandal is a sharp criticism of the war in Iraq and class-struggle.
From a Christian Texas homestead into the fray of the Iraq war, the world-premiere The Dishonorable Discharge of Private Pitts by Daniel Damieno is a fast-paced drama about the pursuit of purpose in times of military conflict. Loosely based on the Abu Ghraib prison detainee torture scandal of 2004, The Dishonorable Discharge of Private Pitts moves us to reexamine our values of faith and our community in the face of war. It is an intimate character-shifting ensemble epic.
Damiano handles the subject of war abroad and its aftermath at home solidly. The script’s biggest strength is its focus on one specific community, utilizing heroine Jenny Pitts (Brooke Turner) as the conduit with the human impact of a working class American embroiled in military scandal. By keeping the action specific, Damiano’s story is able to remove some of the calloused layers of anti-war sentiment built up from over a decade of foreign conflict. Presenting his harsh criticisms of the war in a cool-headed way, Damiano creates a paradigm of America as a nation struggling to makeover its crooked warmongering image.
We empathize with Pitts from the go: Turner is absorbing and inscrutable. With transparent ease, she shifts from Jenny in her teenage years, a hopeless wanderer, to a 20-year-old self-affirmed patriot Private Pitts. A scandal scars her brave façade enough that Pitts once again transforms—this time into a social reject and prisoner of the very institution she swore to uphold. Turner grasps ten years of Pitt’s life with grace and grit in a performance filled with keen nuance. The supporting cast both embrace and rage against the plight of war as a modernized Grecian chorus. Rapidly switching characters, from citizens of the United States in the aftermath of 9-11, to drop-outs bonding in a group home, to US army privates and sergeants stationed in Baghdad, every member of the ensemble gets a chance to expresses a unique view on the transformative power of finding a calling.
“Everyone chose to be here, regardless of circumstances,” rants Pitts defensively to her guard-post mate Private Mendoza (Jazmin Norwood). Or did they? Brandishing clear-headed social commentary, The Dishonorable Discharge… speaks on the social inequality for those enlisting. Mendoza, one of Norwood’s several excellent character portrayals, is a single mother of three who is in debt and enlists as a way to change her own story; she illuminates, “I’m serving my country…all of a sudden I’m not a single mother in over her head. I’m fuckin’ G.I. Jane.” Social classes experience wars differently. If you’re down on your luck you don’t need too much incentive to want to enlist. Towards the end of this tight little epic, and in the aftermath of a shameful controversy, Pitts unloads on a priest: “I contributed nothing to this earth except to cause distress.” A timely examination of a crisis of faith, the confrontation seems to unconsciously pay homage to the climactic scene of Camus’ existential classic masterpiece The Stranger.
Director Kathy Gail MacGowan and sound designer Julian Evans bring this historic epic to rumbling life on a completely bare stage. All of the action happens in the round with some scenes playing just a foot or two away from the audience. MacGowan capitalizes on the intimacy of the IATI Theatre space with a lithe talent for ensemble staging. Moving swiftly, she crafts picturesque moments of action. Every seat in the house offers a uniquely dramatic experience of the show. The sound design is an atmospheric treat; Julian Evans melds genres and styles of both music and effect. There is an immediately recognizable soundtrack of late '90s regional radio-scape that sets up a concrete reality of Halibut, Texas. Building off these moments of realism, Evans niftily morphs his aural storytelling into a more psychological experience. A lightning storm and collapsing buildings, for instance, are made grander as Evans allows us to experiences them as evidence of Pitts’s fracturing psyche.
“I don’t want sympathy...I either wana’ serve a life sentence or die. There’s nothin’ else for me out there.” As we celebrate Veteran's Day this week, that final plea from Pitts really seemed to strike a chord with everyone in the theater. I really appreciated Damiano’s and MacGowan’s attention to the subject of how we treat and care for our soldiers returning home from combat. MacGowan and team tell Damiano’s story as both an immediate and a cerebral experience. With Brooke Turner’s exacting performance, The Dishonorable Discharge of Private Pitts leaves a lasting and pressing impression.
(The Dishonorable Discharge Of Private Pitts plays at the IATI Theater, 64 East 4th Street, through November 22, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at smarttix.com.)
The Dishonorable Discharge of Private Pitts is written by Daniel Damiano, and is directed by Kathy Gail McGowan. Lighting design is by Michael Megliola. Sound design is by Julian Evans. Costume design is by Vorachon Roongsri. Bethany Clark is the Production Stage Manager.
The cast features Judy Alvarez, John Blaylock, Mark Ellmore, Allan Hayhurst, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, Jasmin Norwood, Mary Ellen Toomey and Brooke Turner.