There have been many powerful and unforgettable shows written about war veterans and their adjustment to the outside world. Less common in San Diego are plays where veterans are cast in full-length dramas.
For a limited run, the La Jolla Playhouse site-specific theatre program, Without Walls, in association with Cornerstone Theater Company, is currently presenting a moving world premiere drama, What Happens Next.
Several vets including Jay (Nick Borrelli), Tina (Judy Bauerlein), Karl (Bruce A. Lemon, Jr.), Mike (Francisco Martinezcuello) and Frank (Jay Jee was an understudy for Nico Marcolongo during the April 21 performance) are required to attend a San Diego drama theatre program led by a teacher, Bonnie (Hannah Logan). At first, very few of the students want to take part in the various activities, games and exercises taught by Bonnie.
Over time, the Iraq and Afghanistan vets soon open up about their past to Bonnie and each other.
Playwright, Naomi Iizuka, took inspiration from interviews she conducted with veterans and those closest to them. Her dialogue features a balance of blunt rawness and human sympathy. Early on, certain students are at each other’s throats, because of how they were psychologically affected during their time in off-shore duties.
While all of the interactions portrayed are extremely realistic, some of Karl’s early dialogue gets a little repetitive with his anger towards Frank. As everyone, including Bonnie, starts to become more comfortable with each other, Iizuka’s writing becomes increasingly emotional and affecting.
Iizuka uses humor as a way for theatregoers to create investment in her characters. The most closed-off people, such as Tina and Karl, eventually become appealing and likable because of some surprisingly hilarious dialogue given to them.
Staged at the Challenged Athletes Center in Sorrento Valley, Michael John Garces’ (the Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theatre Company) direction allows audiences to feel like they are watching classes that Jay, Mike and others are attending. He knows how to inject the right amount of intensity in dramatic moments, without making serious situations overwhelmingly dramatic or disturbing.
Both well-established ensemble members and the veterans give authentic performances that always feel genuine. Logan plays Bonnie initially as a confident instructor, who yet displays vulnerability as she deals with a family emergency. Although there are times where she struggles, Logan showcases Bonnie’s goodness and compassion.
Like Logan, Bauerlein and Lemon, Jr. convincingly inhabit their roles with a real understanding of the parts given to them. Some audience members might think that they are actually veterans who served their country abroad.
Borrelli, Jee, and Martinezcuello are all naturally charismatic and funny under Garces’ direction.
Of the three cast members listed above, Borrelli has to act through the darkest material. Jay might appear friendly and easygoing, but he is a deeply haunted man. A monologue that Jay gives is heartbreaking, because of Borrelli’s intense portrayal of a wounded soul.
There are also sequences of optimism, especially when Bonnie talks to a mom, Margaret (Blue Star Mothers of America member, Jennie McFarling), who volunteers at the athletes’ center. McFarling has such a sincere presence, that her scenes will hit home for many people attending What Comes Next.
What Happens Next isn’t really about war. It’s about why we should try to empathize with others, even if we don’t fully understand what they’re going through.
Powerfully executed, What Happens Next is an example of how art and caring can be positive influences on all kinds of human beings. Productions such as this don’t come to San Diego often, and I highly recommend buying tickets before Sunday afternoon.