Uncommon Valor: “She Went to War” at the Guthrie Theater

Photo courtesy Guthrie Theater

When I was a boy, America’s relationship to war was a complicated thing. I was named after an uncle who was in the Army in Vietnam when I was born (it was no certain thing that he would be coming home; thankfully, he did). The nation had been stung by that war, the crisis of confidence, the damage to individuals, to institutions, to the nation’s soul.

The Telling Project’s She Went to War at the Guthrie Theater is primarily focused on small-scale human stories, which is the heart of its deep emotional impact. Four women share an unadorned stage and take turns relating narratives and details from their combat service — including poignant loss, the heartening pull of camaraderie, and the trials of adjusting to civilian life after the intensity of feeling death’s touch constantly at hand.

This is the latest in a series of dozens of productions (Telling Project co-creator Max Rayneard directs) in which former military personnel relate their own stories. The women on the Guthrie stage aren’t actors; the moments of communion between them (quick fist bumps, fleeting hugs to bolster strength) seemed rooted in shared discipline as well as catharsis.

More impressive still is that the show’s effect isn’t to grab the audience by the collar with horror stories, or to promote or criticize the military or any particular war or political movement — it’s using the stage to transmit, to reach out, to allow the delicate bubble of truth to shimmer and float suspended without shattering it with didacticism.

Jenn Calaway, a former marine, recounts her time as a military journalist. Her writer’s voice describes bonding with a British unit in Afghanistan by slaughtering a goat for the evening’s banquet (followed by a brief, heartbreaking epilogue). Both Tabitha Nichols and Racheal Robinson outline the daunting task of adjusting to life after the combat zone, with the sense that there are truly no convenient boxes in which one can store experiences that don’t easily add up.

Gretchen Evans, a diminutive Bronze Star recipient and 27-year Army vet, shares one of the more harrowing accounts of the night, about being pinned down under heavy fire on a mountainside, and later reels off every arena of combat she saw (beginning with Grenada and ending with our current wars). She also offers the only entirely credible reply to questions of what it all meant — with a soft-spoken description of the times in her career when she witnessed real good being done, suffering eased, injustice rectified.

The years since my boyhood have seen fundamental changes in this country and how we relate to war — probably the most profound has been a shift from a conscripted military to professional, volunteer fighting forces. The impact of Vietnam reached deep into American society because a larger cross section of young men were drafted and sent to fight. Today veterans are honored at sporting events and in expensive advertising campaigns, but one recent study demonstrated that markedly fewer of us have direct family connections to the military than a generation or two ago.

More of us are isolated, or sheltered, from the realities of war and combat than ever before. We talk to one another less and less, and our public discourse is increasingly ill-equipped to address the enormity of the military experience and the ramifications of what’s done in our name. She Went to War doesn’t solve this for us. Of course it will take much more than a play. But the show elegantly bridges this gap, in fifty understated minutes, with dignity, grace, and an abundance of intelligence. At times it’s difficult going, but these four women’s bravery (in taking the stage, in laying bare their experiences) points the way toward true hope for coming together in the name of reason and compassion.

*****

Quinton Skinner’s theater writing has appeared in Variety, the Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, City Pages, and American Theatre. He is the editor of North Mag.