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“Hate the war, not the soldiers.”
The meaning behind these words, rendered nearly propagandistic in the current political climate, gets a close vetting in Open Circle Theatre’s production of Jason Robert Brown’s musical Songs for a New World. The musical, originally staged as an off-Broadway cabaret more than a decade ago, tells the story of one Army division’s ordeals in Iraq and the war’s impact back home. Director Suzanne Richard has cast actors with disabilities in the roles of disabled war veterans, bringing a hard edge of reality to Brown’s work.
Richard’s inspiration, she says, came from meeting disabled Iraq War veterans in Silver Spring. “We spend our summers [there] rehearsing plays, and after rehearsals we’d go out to nearby bars,” says the Rockville resident. There, she and fellow Open Circle actors would run into soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After learning about their rough transition to civilian life, she says, “We wanted to show the soldiers’ stories.”
The musical is split between two main storylines. The first follows an Army division as it deploys to Iraq. A nameless commanding officer (Warren Snipe) endures a series of firefights; eventually, a bomb explodes near him, rendering him deaf. In the accompanying storyline, a disabled war dissident named David (Rob McQuay) travels across the country arranging anti-war protests. Through a series of events, the main characters’ lives intertwine, showing the travails that await broken soldiers after their return to a homeland uncertain of how—or whether—to honor them.
More than anything, says the 36-year-old Richard, “These are all characters who are facing a complete change in their lives.” Many of the musical’s cast members can relate to the challenges faced by the commanding officer as he tries to enter society with a disability. “There’s a pool to draw on of those awkward moments,” Richard says, “when someone [who isn’t disabled] doesn’t know how to react…and you have to make them feel at ease with their discomfort.”
While some casting choices lend characters a heightened sense of realism, other choices make for surrealistic moments. Actress Melissa Mustard, who has cerebral palsy and uses a power chair while onstage, plays a dissident named Jenny who follows David on his cross-country protest tour. During one scene, a group of protesters gather in a bar after a rally; a song begins playing, and the protesters partner up for a ballroom dance number. Richard modified the dance steps so that Mustard could mimic the other actors’ movements in her chair. When the other female actors twirl around, for example, she also spins, keeping one hand on her chair’s joystick and the other in the palm of her partner’s hand.
“We all start and end at the same time,” Mustard says of the scene’s choreography. “The moves are customized to me.”
For all of the imagination Richard invests in embracing actors’ disabilities, she hopes her efforts will one day lead to Open Circle Theatre closing its doors. “Our mission is to become obsolete,” she says. “I want talented artists with disabilities to get exposure to the theater community so they’ll get cast in more plays.”
Songs for a New World runs at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sundays, to Sunday, Aug. 26, at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $15n$30. (240) 683-0305.