A Battle of Ills: Liz Lerman constructs an abstract exploration of medicine in wartime.
A Battle of Ills: Liz Lerman constructs an abstract exploration of medicine in wartime.

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Backstage dioramas are far superior to backstage drama. Before theater patrons take their seats to see Healing Wars at Arena Stage, they are invited to enter the Kogod Cradle through a rear door and wander through a haunting labyrinth of Civil War-era tableaux.

Up against a wall on the left, a dancer (Alli Ross) maneuvers between two poles and an elevated bicycle seat, her gray wool uniform obscured by the cage of a hoop skirt. A placard identifies Ross as a woman soldier who fought in disguise. She’s tentative, grasping. Farther down on the right, Keith A. Thompson portrays a freedman working a grave digging detail, while tucked away in an alcove, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman poses as Clara Barton, sorting through a pile of letters from missing soldiers, reading each as if silently reciting a prayer.

The only exit from this dark warren is out onto the brightly lit stage, where a familiar- looking middle-aged guy is sharing a bench with a 20-something guy with a prosthetic leg. With his arms the younger man gestures wildly, and with enthusiasm he describes the fun he has learning to play “sled hockey” since losing his leg while serving in Iraq.

The former U.S. Navy gunner’s mate is Paul Hurley, a 2004 graduate of D.C.’s Duke Ellington School for the Arts, and his companion is the film actor Bill Pullman, Hurwitz Pullman’s husband.

In this dance/theater piece, director/choreographer Liz Lerman never does a better job of juxtaposing two conflicts—the American Civil War and U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan—than she does in this self-guided preshow tour. The living dioramas treat their subjects with great sympathy and humanity. The vignettes in the actual 80-minute show, viewed from the theater’s seats, do not.

Lerman, a Takoma Park–based MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, specializes in taking already complicated topics and abstracting them through dance. Before she left her company, Dance Exchange, in 2011, she had tackled the human genome and the CERN Particle Collider. Healing Wars is a project she’s been working on for years, and it still looks unfinished. There are some poignant moments, of course, and Pullman is well used as a Navy surgeon retelling the same story from the field in multiple versions, like a Tim O’Brien novel. But too many narrative threads are left dangling to keep viewers caring about the characters who do recur. Segues sometimes consist of Hurwitz Pullman snapping her fingers while a chime sounds, as if she’s Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie.

Equally awkward is a shift from a vignette about suicide to a montage of real YouTube videos of soldiers dancing, reset to Lady Gaga’s “Telephone”; what’s meant as a juxtaposition comes off as mockery. More effective dance sequences depict the 19th-century introduction of ether for surgical patients (“A Frolic”), and a tussle that suggests losing a limb. The monologues could use an editor, who might have excised the horrific story Ross shares about troops receiving medical training by suturing pigs with multiple gunshot wounds before the animals are promptly shot again. That war turns the world into a bloody mess is clear, but in a show called Healing Wars, surely Lerman could impart some sense of hope. Thanks to both the historical characters (Clara Barton, who did much to further medicine and the role of women in the workforce) and a present-day veteran like Hurley, the tools were at hand to both tie up loose narrative ends and convey a sense that all is not lost. Instead, each of the final five vignettes feels like the last, and each is equally bleak. Not that a play about war should be uplifting, but thank God for that chance to hear Hurley talk so enthusiastically about sled hockey. For the lucky ones, there is healing after war, so much more now than 149 years ago.

1101 6th St. SW. $50-$109. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org