Sunday, November 13, 2005

Soldier fights many battles in ‘Army of One’

By Mike Vicencio


It’s both fitting and ominous that “An Army of One,” a new play by Kansas University graduate Zacory Boatright, will premiere Monday just weeks after the U.S. military death toll in Iraq reached 2,000 and three days after Veterans Day.

Offering a disturbing glimpse into the drama of a soldier’s past and present colliding, the play tells the story of Josh Harrison, an Iraq veteran suffering from the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder and who, fatefully enough, lost his father to the Gulf War as a child.

“An Army of One” tells the story of Josh Harrison, a veteran of the war in Iraq, through three different stages in his life: as an 8-year-old child who loses his father to war (foreground, Kris Hilding), an 18-year-old who enlists after Sept. 11 (left, Dylan Hilpman), and as a young Iraq veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (middle, Joe Carey).

Just as Josh’s motivation to go to war is personal, so was the playwright’s impetus to roll up his sleeves and put pen to paper.

“The play is based on my building response to what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11,” says Boatright, who wrote “An Army of One” during a directed study with KU professor Paul Lim before graduating last May with a bachelor’s degree in English. “As a person who’s not in the military or the government, I could only do so much in response to the tragedy. But after digesting the influx of news, I just needed to put something down on paper.”

During the early stages of writing, Boatright was focused on communicating the need for Americans to take responsibility for what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. But after reading a Newsweek article titled “Battling the Effects of War,” which dealt in part with Jeffrey Lucey, an Iraq veteran who suffered from PTSD and eventually committed suicide, the playwright shifted directions and decided that “An Army of One” would be about “what it means to come home from war.”

“I think it’s important that we document these events,” he says. “Especially when you look at the lives of people like Jeffrey Lucey. These men, these veterans, are out there. And psychological wounds are some of the hardest to document as well as treat.”

Youthful perspective

Given the haunted psyche of the play’s lead character, Boatright took an innovative approach in portraying the complexities of his fictitious yet true-to-life protagonist. Throughout the play, scenes from the past and the present interweave, offering glimpses of Josh as a child of 8 who loses his father to the Gulf War, Josh as an impetuous 18-year-old who enlists in the U.S. Army on the heels of the World Trade Center tragedy, and Josh as a still-young yet harried Iraq veteran suffering from PTSD, struggling to maintain his diminishing sense of reason.

Josh’s youngest incarnation, played by 12-year-old Kris Hilding, a seventh-grader at Southwest Junior High School who looks much younger than his age, lends a certain amount of innocence and levity to the drama. The role was difficult to cast considering the play’s content, which is “suggested for mature audiences” and the production’s concerns with exposing a child to such material. But Kris’ parents, Jerel and Krystyna Hilding, have felt comfortable with his involvement. They’ve played the offstage role of supporter and watched with pride as their son develops as an actor.

“We’ve discussed the script with him and made sure he’s aware of its seriousness,” says Jerel Hilding, a KU dance professor. “And he’s old enough to understand what’s happening in the play, not to be disturbed by it. He knows all this and has put it into perspective.”

Confident with his son’s mature take on the material, Jerel sees Kris’ involvement with the play as a valuable lesson.

“It’s important for Kris to understand the difference between reality and the representation of reality,” he says. “I think it’s a good lesson for him to see or try to recognize the difference between the two. And the production has been very sensitive. They haven’t been overwhelming him with the subject matter of the play.”

Krystyna Hilding, also a KU dance instructor, shares her husband’s sentiment and sees the role as an opportunity to advance his lifelong interests.

“Ever since he was young he’s been writing short plays and acting them out with friends,” she says. “And the fact that people recognize Kris’ talent is encouraging. But my husband and I are not going out and pushing him. Things just seem to be falling into place for him.”

From left, Josh’s girlfriend, Katie, played by Candice Bondank, 18-year-old Josh, played by Dylan Hilpman, and Josh’s mother, played by Rachael Perry, rehearse a scene from “An Army of One” at William Inge Memorial Theatre in Murphy Hall at Kansas University. The show opens at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

Right script, right timing

With the Monday night premiere creeping up, the soft-spoken Kris remains quietly confident about his pivotal role, perhaps reserving the influence of his words for the stage.

“I’m not nervous about the play,” he says with a grin and a shrug. “I’m excited.”

He’s not the only one. The play marks the first co-production of the University Theatre and English Alternative Theatre.

Founder of the latter, KU English professor Paul Lim, credits a recent shift in administration for the imminent event.

“The English Alternative Theatre operated independent of any other theater group in Lawrence because, until recently, there really hadn’t been much interest with original scripts,” Lim says. “But KU’s department of theater and film has a new chair, professor Chuck Berg. It’s largely because of him that this historic co-production is happening.”

Accepting the praise humbly, Berg refers to his role as “very minimal.”

“The engagement of serious cultural issues such as the Iraq war through the co-production of this play is complementary to what I would like to see more of on campus, not just in theater, but in other art forms,” he says.

John Staniunas, artistic director for University Theatre, points out that the KU company and EAT are both actively involved in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, and that “An Army of One” has been entered in this year’s competition.

“We thought it would be a good idea to collaborate towards this mutual goal,” he says. “It’s a win-win situation for both parties. Paul Lim and I have been thinking about this for the past three years. We were lucky enough to find the right script, the right timing.”

Topical theater

Referring back to the play’s focus on Iraq veterans and the ongoing war, both Berg and Lim believe in art’s power to bring pressing social issues to center stage for discussion and personal reflection.

“Much like Vietnam, the Iraq war has torn this generation apart,” Berg says. “There is no general consensus that the course this country has taken is the right one. It should be interesting to see people’s reactions to the play.”

Adds Lim: “The recent unpopularity of the war will make the play all the more worthwhile and topical.”

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