Talkin’ Broadway: Boots on the Ground

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Richard Donelly, Stephen Thorne, Joe Wilson, Jr., and Rachael Warren

When I first heard about the Trinity Rep’s Boots on the Ground, I thought to myself, “Dear Lord, do I really want to sit through a ‘docu-drama’ about the Iraq War … and its affect on Rhode Island?” Believe me when I say, no one is more surprised than I that the answer is an emphatic yes. For, while the new play by Laura Kepley and D. Salem Smith is based on over 200 hours of interviews with 70 different Rhode Islanders, the authors have wisely put the focus on the drama, creating a moving tapestry of individuals, families, and communities touched by a war half a world away.

The genius of Boots on the Ground is not that it presents real people in their own words; we’ve seen that plenty of times before. Rather, it focuses on the human element of the war, emphasizing relationships over politics, emotion over ideology. Kepley, pulling double-duty as director, has assembled a first-rate cast of five who collectively bring to life twenty-three fully realized characters. Despite only adjusting their costumes by slight tweaks between each character, there is never a moment of confusion or doubt about which character is on stage.

The cast is so note-perfect it’s hard to single any one out, but each performer blesses the audience with at least one particularly powerful moment: Richard Donelly, portraying the executive editor of the Providence Journal, Joel Rawson, reflecting on the difference between being a soldier in Viet Nam and being an embedded journalist in Iraq; Ann Scurria, as an anonymous soldier questioning whether the greeting the soldiers received upon crossing the Iraqi border was born of gratitude or fear; Stephen Thorne as a young National Guardsman, forced into the service for lack of a way to earn a living; Rachael Warren, a young wife torn longing for her husband but trying to keep her life together; and Joe Wilson, Jr, as her husband, a young commanding officer dealing with the loss of his best soldier.

This is all made so much more powerful by its local connection. The script perfectly preserves the cadence of Southern New England speech. The characters are our neighbors, our friends, ourselves. The deceptively simple costumes, built from a palette of khaki by William Lane, allow the actors to fully embody their characters in stance and speech without needing to “dress up” extensively. Beowulf Boritt’s sand and hardwood set, aided by adept lighting by Brian J. Lilienthal and sparingly used videos by Jamie McElhinney, suggests Providence living rooms and Iraqi dessert all at once.

The play either concludes with, or is followed by, an audience discussion facilitated by Pam Steager. The Trinity hasn’t quite made up its mind whether the discussion is in fact act two, as it’s billed in the program, or a “post-show” element, as it’s announced. Either way, it’s a fascinating and necessary part of the experience. As fascinating and moving as it was to watch the actors portray Rhode Island’s reaction to the war, it was doubly fascinating and moving to hear it from fellow audience members. Most surprising was how individuals in the audience experienced the play so differently from one another, and Steager skillfully allowed all voices to be heard.

Boots on the Ground, from its unique genesis to its unique production format, is a very special theatrical experience. And it’s one you won’t want to miss.

Boots on the Ground at the Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington Street, Providence, Rhode Island, now through May 21st. Tickets are $40 on weekdays, $50 on weekends. Discounts are available for educators, military, firefighters, police, students, and seniors. Rush tickets available two hours prior to showtime. For tickets, performance schedule, and information, call the box office at (401) 351-4242 or visit

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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