Stress Test

Eve Ensler's new drama about a soldier, his hot shrink, and some naughty war crimes

Not until 1980 did psychiatrists certify post-traumatic stress disorder as a mental illness. Diagnostic criteria include exposure to a traumatic event, re-experience of that event, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, and an increase in arousal (insomnia, irritability, hypervigilance). The sergeant at the heart of Eve Ensler's The Treatment would do the DSM-V proud. A self-described "PTSD freak," his experience interrogating suspected terrorists has left him sleepless, violent, and prone to debilitating flashbacks. "I can't get hard," he says, "I can't get still. I can't get quiet, I can't get anything." However, his psychiatrist does not minister to him with popular interventions such as cognitive restructuring, a Paxil prescription, or eye movement desensitization. Rather, she pumps him full of sedatives and locks him in a darkened room. Can an audience member sue for malpractice?

Attending an Eve Ensler play is by no means a traumatic event—indeed, many of the spectators lauded a recent matinee performance with a standing ovation—but it is often a silly one. Like a terrier with a passion for squirrel chasing, Ensler fastens her teeth on whatever issue she's chosen to explore (violence against women, body image, Bosnian war crimes) and doesn't easily let go. She's going to explore PTSD and inhumane treatment of prisoners until they're good and dead. Not a playwright of particular nuance or eloquence, Ensler tends toward the bold, the broad, the evident. This play does make some gestures toward ambiguity, though it's doubtful that many spectators who attend the Culture Project will disagree with its tenets: torture = bad, accountability = good.

Therapeutic pas de deux: Dylan McDermott and Portia
photo: Bruce Glikas
Therapeutic pas de deux: Dylan McDermott and Portia

The Treatmentis the centerpiece for the Culture Project's newly minted Impact Festival, an ambitious series of theater, dance, film, and lectures exploring the intersections of art and politics, running through October 22. Letting alone Ensler's impressive pedigree as an activist, her play's subject matter makes it a natural choice for the Culture Project, which has largely focused on documentary and fictional works exploring power and its abuses (The Exonerated, Guantánamo, Guardians, most recently the post-apartheid piece Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise). If these plays tend a bit toward the self-congratulatory, they also revealed real miscarriages of justice, within our country and without it, even inspiring some spectators to work for change.

But The Treatment, under Leigh Silverman's direction, mostly serves as a confused two-character retread of issues better explored elsewhere. A sergeant (Dylan McDermott), returned from a grueling tour of duty, has entered therapy at the behest of his wife. He's assigned to an African American woman (Portia) who holds the rank of major and displays a rather distracting pair of legs in her short uniform skirt. As the sergeant decorously comments, "A shrink in a uniform, it's hot." Soon talk therapy gives way to more sinister methods and the good doctor flaunts enough counter-transference to make even Jung blush. Together they'll work to cure the sergeant and punish the naughty men who made him violate those nice Geneva Conventions.

On an office set of queasy greens and tarnished silvers (courtesy of Richard Hoover) awash in ominous lighting, patient and doctor execute an arrhythmic pas de deux. The sergeant rages, threatens, and weeps. The major queries, drugs, and cuddles him. Ensler doesn't lend her characters too many personal details; she doesn't even afford them names. As a consequence, they emerge not so much as individuals, but as loose amalgams of emotional extremes, forced to engage in rapid-fire exchanges so earnest that they nearly occasion laughter.

McDermott, with his neck tensed and pecs pumped beneath his tight T-shirt, can seem quite terrifying, but this violence doesn't come naturally to him. There's an intelligence to his gaze and a patrician cast to his face that render him less like a deranged army man and more like a grad student with caffeine d.t.'s. He's straining from the first scene, pushing even into the quieter moments when he's loopy with tranqs. Eventually, he's awash in effluents: tears, spit, snot. Portia, with her pursed lips, broad brow, and bittersweet chocolate voice, succeeds better as his foil, though she never smoothes over the incoherence of her character. Nor can she lend credence to bathetic lines such as "You and all the broken soldiers who pass through this room. Day in, day out, ever since this bloody war began. No one sleeping."

Few would argue that the "war on terror" has not had a deleterious effect on many soldiers or that PTSD should be ignored. Some studies indicate that as many as 10 percent of American men may suffer from PTSD, and in sites of recent conflict such as Cambodia or Gaza, those percentages may double and triple. But surely the disorder deserves better treatment than Ensler's inane prescription.

 
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