As tough as it is to go to war, it’s even harder to come back.
That may seem a truism, given all that we’ve heard or seen about the struggles of returning combat vets. But that struggle is rarely conveyed as viscerally as it is in Backwards Forwards Back, a one-person play currently receiving its world premiere in a riveting production at Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre.
Virtual Reality Therapy
Jacqueline Goldfinger’s protagonist gets identified simply as “The Soldier.” His memories of war have intruded dangerously into his everyday life, and he has been forced to begin Virtual Reality therapy.
“I’m learning to live in the real world,” he explains, “by interacting with a fake one.”
But he’s none too happy about it. He doesn’t want to go back to the field of battle, though that’s where the virtual treatment takes him at first. And he’s plagued by the sense that he’s a failure, one who wasn’t strong enough to conquer his demons with pills or talk therapy.
But he knows this is his last resort. Because if it doesn’t work, he can’t go back to his family. (VR therapy, by the way, is not science fiction; it’s a decades-old technique now in common use.)
Urbanite’s intimate space is ideally suited to Goldfinger’s play. Jeff Weber’s set — described simply in the script as a “VR Therapy Studio” — is austere, with one beige armchair at center stage where The Soldier sits when he dons his VR headset. Behind him, a white oval serves as a screen, showing us what the Soldier sees during his therapy sessions — a desert, a burning building, a bucolic park — so that we’re right with him as he confronts his fears.
But it’s not just the screen that helps accomplish this. Director Brendan Ragan, a past master of one-man shows, gets aided here by Sean Ragan’s evocative soundscape, Lyndell McDonald’s pinpoint lighting, Kristy Iris’s apt costume choices and, above all, by the bravura performance of L. James as the Soldier.
Goldfinger stipulates in her script that The Soldier can be played by an actor of any race or gender identity. James (he/him, Black) served in the US Army. He also has an MFA from FSU/Asolo Conservatory, and his performance reflects the rigorous training he received at both. He fully embodies a drill sergeant (“the biggest mouth in the army”); the Soldier’s brusque sister; his sweet, frightened niece; his no-nonsense therapist; and every aspect of The Soldier’s divided self, whether he’s reliving the terrifying death of a comrade, losing control at a Fourth of July celebration, or braving his re-entry into the real world.
Toward the end of the play, the Soldier describes the process of recovery as “a tango of the will” — the dance of Backwards Forwards Back evoked in the title. Goldfinger’s play serves as a wrenching reminder that for most (if not all) combat veterans, war is never over. But it also contains a message of hope — that there can be a way back from trauma, and, as the Soldier can finally concede, it’s “a dance worth doing.”
See Backwards Forwards Back
Backwards Forwards Back. Urbanite Theatre, 1487 2nd St., Sarasota, through Apr. 30. Wed.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. $5-$41. Post-show talkbacks on Thursdays with the cast and CEO of Operation Warrior Resolution. Run time: 65 minutes, no intermission. 941-321-1397; urbanitetheatre.com