31 Down’s “Here at Home” at Bushwick Starr

I think that every 31 Down show I’ve seen is somehow louder than the last. Not a criticism, mind you, just an observation. Here At Home, which is running at the Bushwick Starr through May 28th, is pretty darn loud. Maybe it is because the Bushwick Starr is a little more intimate than the Incubator, maybe it is because 31 Down just likes it loud. Not sure. But the rumble and hum of the sound design is omnipresent, almost a character unto itself. At times it is a foreboding undercurrent of tension and un-ease; at other times it represents the violence of the war overseas, far away but always present in the hearts and minds of those here at home.

In “Here At Home” Hollis Witherspoon plays Holly, a Wal-Mart worker whose boyfriend, Matt (Eric Bland), is stationed in Iraq. She spends her smoke breaks not smoking with co-worker Frank (DJ Mendel) – a veteran of the first Gulf War who has apparently suffered some kind of brain damage. They are occasionally joined by Matt’s misfit brother Mike (Ryan Holsopple) who cannot join the military due to an eye ailment but hopes to see some action overseas as a contractor. Through a series of intimate scenes and surreal vignettes, their lives intertwine as Holly unravels, Mike dreams of carnage and Frank drifts between the two. Matt is a spectre, looming large over the proceedings but appearing only briefly, and in silence.

Mendel and Witherspoon deliver intense, focused, well-crafted performances as two damaged individuals reaching out to each other for some sort of cold comfort. They exchange banalities, reflect on the ennui of slaving for Wal-Mart, they try to find ways to express the unease they share, Frank with his memories of war and Holly with her fear for her boyfriend, her own ache and longing. When Frank decides to share with Holly a poem that he wrote to an ex-girlfriend, it is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Previous 31 Down shows have been written collaboratively by Holsopple and director Shannon Sindelar – this marks the first time (I think) that they’ve worked with an outside writer, Eric Bland. Bland’s writing style is more straightforward than Holsopple/Sindelar’s work, though it is punctuated by impressionistic moments of heightened language, to varying effect.

Thematically “Here At Home” is timely and relevant. Despite the constant headlines of global unrest, still it is easy to forget we are a country at war. By focusing on the way war changes the men who fight it and affects the loved ones left behind, the show draws attention to a little-discussed reality.

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