Nation of Two
There’s a lot of “hero” talk when it comes to our troops. They march bravely into the fore to defend our country and protect us from evil. They risk life and limb for our way of life. But what few say is that these are also humans, young people who are as fucked up as the young people back home. They say and do stupid things. They make bad decisions. And even when they die overseas, they leave a trail of carnage behind.
That’s the idea behind Nation of Two, the second installment in playwright Tom Burmester’s War Cycle trilogy. Whereas parts one and three—Wounded and The Gospel According to First Squad—focus on those men fighting in war zones, part two is a play about the wars they’ve left behind back home.
The play opens when two military personnel arrive at the Marin County, California, home of the Harpers, who are still blissfully unaware their son and brother, Lt. Michael Harper, has been killed in Iraq.
Then we spend the rest of the heartbreakingly beautiful two-plus-hour play discovering just how much that grenade exploded his family’s lives.
Michael’s parents are Lilith, the rock of the family, played expertly and passionately by Cami Thompson; and Sam, played with tragic precision by Jon Lutz. While Sam has been holed up for a year in the family’s basement, unemployed and needlessly tinkering with a project he and his son began before Michael’s deployment, Lilith has kept the family going—working and generally ensuring they don’t all fall apart. As the one-year anniversary of Michael’s death, and the date to scatter his ashes, approaches, they’re forced to accept that it’s time to get on with life.
Michael’s older brother is Ariel (Jessey Richards), who isn’t so sure about this whole “hero” status that’s been assigned to Michael, especially in light of the mysterious arrival of Michael’s brother-in-combat Sergeant Hal Taylor (Greg Klino). Little sister Dina (Ender Riddle) is the awkward teenager who lost the only family member who seemed to really understand her.
Michael’s widow, Sophia (played by director Chase McKenna), is nothing like what we imagine of the term war widow—not the ’40s-era, black-wearing housewife with two kids, but a 24-year-old single woman who has her whole life ahead of her. And while the Harpers cling desperately to her as a way to hang onto Michael, she has her own grief to process and a frantic desire to escape and move on.
The story raises important, interesting questions about who owns the dead, who gets to make decisions about him and whose grief is most acute. Is this grief a burden or a luxury? And when a soldier dies in combat, is it better to know the details or remain in the dark?
It doesn’t feel right to say that Nation of Two is a show you’ll enjoy. It’s deeply painful, gut-wrenching even. I wept, thinking constantly of the unimaginable, unendurable pain of losing a child.
There’s not a weak performance to be found here. In fact, it’s inconceivable that these actors can be this good, this wrought with pain, this tearful night after night, but they are. You’ll be impressed and profoundly moved. Don’t miss it.