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.”
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.”