Courtesy / The Surround Project - Siggi Ragnar
“Paralyzing family resentments, depleted affections, and sublimated cruelties” in Four Places, a play about “the insular toxicity of the nuclear family.”
It may seem contradictory to offer such emotionally-charged theatrical productions as opportunities for communal healing, but two local organizations believe otherwise.
June 13-23 at the Classic Theatre, The Surround Project of San Antonio offers Four Places, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson about a family’s reckoning with addiction and its bitter history. And on June 29, for one night only, Arts in the Armed Forces gives members of the military and their families a chance to experience True West, with popular television actors Chad L. Coleman and L. Scott Caldwell reading the lead roles.
Both plays are meant as therapeutic opportunities to confront difficult issues, with post-performance question-and-answer sessions, panels with experts on substance use and mental health issues, and informal conversations with participants.
The Surround Project
With backgrounds in theater, Eva Laporte and husband Zach Lewis co-founded the theater collective Surround Project in 2017 to not only present quality plays, but “surround” the performances with meaningful connections to community resources focused on mental health and other issues.
“That’s the thing about traumas and narrative, there’s a therapeutic benefit to narrative,” Laporte said. She chooses plays based on the issues they present. Surround Project’s first production was 9 Circles, about murder and rape in the theater of war, and the current Four Places, deals with family trauma.
“The stories we tell can either help us process trauma, or they can become a barrier to that,” she said. “This play is a little bit more about lies and keeping secrets. That’s a truly unhealthy way, a dysfunctional way of responding to trauma.”
Four Places begins with siblings picking up their elderly mother for a regular weekly lunch, with the revelation that this lunch is highly irregular. The son and daughter mean to confront their mother about simmering family issues, including addiction and abuse.
The four places referred to in the title could be the play’s four settings: in the car on the way to lunch, the restaurant lobby, seated at the restaurant table, and the women’s bathroom. They could also metaphorically refer to the four family members, who are all in different “places” regarding the family’s situation, Laporte said.
“What’s interesting is most of this play is really funny,” she said, “because you’ve heard your mother say that thing, or because you’d want to say that thing to your brother but you never have.”
The humor is dark, and there are difficult moments, Laporte admitted, but ultimately the play provides a reward. “We’re not going to open up your chest and lay it on the ground and stomp on it for an hour and a half,” she said. “It’s cathartic, too.”
The ending is not entirely happy, but “it’s a restorative ending, so you’re not going to leave without hope. It’s a play about resilience, about truth, and the healthy ways that we can bond with each other and tell our story.”
Arts in the Armed Forces
Endeavors, a San Antonio nonprofit focused on behavioral health and social services, has teamed up with Arts in the Armed Forces (AITAF) for PTSD Awareness month to host AITAF for a special reading of True West at the Empire Theatre, June 29 at 7 p.m. A post-show discussion between actors and audience will broach the difficult topics addressed in the play.
AITAF was founded by popular actor Adam Driver, who joined the Marine Corps after 9/11 and served three years before shattering his sternum in a mountain biking accident, which forced his medical discharge. Still, his service made an impact on his thinking. “Not too often in the civilian world do you get put into these high-stakes situations with a bunch of friends. You’re seeing people at their strongest and most vulnerable,” Driver is quoted as saying in a 2015 Military Times article.
He went into acting and saw a clear relationship between the characters’ experiences in plays and his military experience. Driver formed Arts in the Armed Forces in 2008, after pulling together fellow actors for a presentation of monologues at Camp Pendelton, where he’d trained.
Since then, AITAF has presented pared-down readings of plays annually on Veteran’s Day to help support overseas tours for performers to visit military bases. This is AITAF’s first visit to San Antonio, and a rare performance in a theater rather than on a military base.
Theater as Healer
True West presents two fighting brothers engaged in a drawn-out, emotionally intense battle of wills. Playwright Sam Shepard has said the brothers essentially represent the dual nature of humanity. He is quoted as saying of his Pulitzer-nominated play, “I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal.”
Though a play that presents unfolding trauma between family members might seem an odd choice for families exposed to trauma, military veteran Lyndon Villone said the emotional challenges of theater are similar to exposure therapy, another common form of treatment that allows traumatized veterans to access their complex emotions in a safe setting.
“Theater does not have to be truth,” Villone said. “Theater can be fiction, so you can exaggerate a circumstance to really drive home a situation that might be exaggerated to some, but might be a real life moment for another person.”
A veteran in the audience might feel that having their story told without having to tell the story themselves can help bridge a gap between military veterans and the civilian society they re-enter after service, he said. It can also “open up conversation whereas before, it would have been awkward.”
Villone runs Heel the Heroes, a nonprofit organization that pairs service members with service animals, “to improve quality of life for veterans and their families while being empowered with tools to progress in their phase of recovery,” according to its website.
Heel the Heroes participated in the first Surround Project production of 9 Circles, titled after a reference to the nine circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Veterans in the audience saw a range of emotions, Villone said, admitting that “some people aren’t in a good place to handle it and walk out.” Villone’s own service animal, Ice the Husky, was on hand to help.
Laporte said “that show stirred up a lot of emotions for people, and the service animal was there to assist them in their response. Veterans were laying on the floor with Ice the Husky,” she said, “processing the play.”
Laporte also confirmed the effectiveness of theater as a therapeutic tool for addressing trauma.
She takes issue with the term disorder in PTSD, saying emotional reactions are a “natural response to stress. It’s not a disorder, it’s actually the normal way of responding to that much stress.”
The Surround Project is partnering with two San Antonio nonprofit organizations for its production of Four Places. On hand June 20 for a post-performance panel discussion will be Angela White, CEO of Alpha Home, which offers spiritually-based treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. After the June 21 performance, on hand will be Talli Dolge, CEO of Jewish Family Service, which provides mental health services and social services like senior care, and is “a local resource for many of the issues found in our play,” Laporte said in a news release announcing the show.
Four Places runs June 13-23 at the Classic Theatre. Tickets are $25, available here, with a dual ASL interpreted performance on June 21.
According to AITAF and Endeavors, the June 29 reading of True West at the Empire Theatre is free and open to all veterans, active military and their families, military support staff, and caregivers. Military ticket holders may bring one guest. Though free, ticket reservations are requested, available here.