Wars have always changed those who fight them, but modern warfare changes soldiers in a different way. Those warriors who sit at a computer, remote-operating drones, missiles, or other technology on a faraway battlefield, are altered not by the blood and adrenaline of close-up combat but by the deadening sensation of becoming a cog in a machine. In the past three months, two different plays in Baltimore have assessed this new warfare by measuring its impact on the soldiers’ marriages. Because one play centers on the soldier and the other on the spouse, they form complementary halves of a whole picture.
In October, Everyman Theatre presented George Brant’s “Grounded,” a play about a U.S. Air Force pilot transferred to a Nevada trailer to operate drones over Afghanistan. Now Single Carrot Theatre is presenting José Rivera’s “References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot,” a play about a woman whose husband is a U.S. Army trainer transferred to a like trailer in the same Southwestern desert to monitor surveillance over Iraq. The two plays wrestle with similar subject matter and reach similar conclusions: that the increasing technology of war alienates soldiers not only from their enemies but also from their families and themselves. But the two shows get there by different paths.
“Grounded” was a one-person show that allowed us to meet the other characters only through the narrator’s recollections. With its five-person cast, “Salvador Dalí” allows us to meet the army trainer’s wife, her cat, and their neighbor in the flesh. “Grounded” covered several decades of the protagonist’s career; “Salvador Dalí” boils everything down to a single weekend when the soldier comes home on leave, expecting “rest and recuperation” but instead getting stress and vituperation. The Everyman production relied on a sophisticated video-set design to evoke electronic warfare. Single Carrot relies on the magic realism of a talking moon and a talking coyote to overcome a low-budget, unattractive set.
In fact, we hear the wild Coyote and the tame Cat verbally sparring before we ever hear from any of the human characters in “Salvador Dalí.” Playing the Coyote with a brown beard, silver fur collar, and canine growl, Nathan Fulton extols the thrills of sex and hunting on the nighttime desert in a transparent bid to seduce the Cat. In a long ponytail, brown fur collar, and maroon tights, the Cat (Heather Peacock) fends off his efforts—but only half-heartedly, for she is clearly attracted to him.
This back-and-forth between a randy, determined male and a wary, indecisive female is repeated when the Moon (Kaveh Haerian) tries to seduce the cat’s owner Gabriela (Jessica Garrett, in what will be her last Single Carrot performance before moving to California) and when the 14-year-old neighbor boy Martin (Sam Hayder) tries the same. All of this is a poetic prologue—an overly arch and overly long prologue—to the main event: the weekend reunion between Gabriela and her soldier husband Benito (Haerian).
The shift from the artsy surrealism of the first scene to the vivid realism of the second is jarring, and neither playwright Rivera nor director Steven Satta can quite make the two parts match. But the dialogue between Gabby and Benito is so strongly written and acted that we are willing to forgive the play its awkward transitions. Both husband and wife are Puerto Rican-Americans transplanted to Barstow, California, both a bit soft around the middle after more than 10 years of married life and army transfers.
Benito comes home in his desert camos, horny as a goat and expecting 48 hours of makeup sex. So he’s put off when Gabriela wriggles out of his clutches and insists that she wants to talk about her college classes in philosophy and astronomy and about her misgivings over Benny’s increasing secretiveness. But just as the encounter seems to be settling into familiar stereotypes, it soon becomes evident that Gabriela is hornier than she lets on and that Benito is smarter than he pretends.
Haerian turns in the evening’s standout performance. He inhabits Benito as a man of robust appetites; when he talks about sex, food, or battlefield adventure, his eyes and skin seem to shine with anticipation. But when met by his wife’s rebuffs, Haerian reluctantly puts aside his preferred party-hearty persona to reveal the man haunted by battles gone bad and kept going by the promise of an early pension if he can stay in the army 20 years. He clenches and squares his jaw in a body language that underlines the message: I can shrug off anything if it will keep me out of poverty.
That’s not what Gabby wants to hear. Played by Garrett as a somewhat dreamy earth mother, Gabriela’s gaze often drifts away from Benito, out the window, and up in the sky, as if she needs more from life than the army’s steady paycheck. Like the protagonist in “Grounded,” Benito feels cramped and boxed in by a war conducted from within a computer cubicle, and that feeling has now infected his wife. Now, like her own house cat, Garrett’s Gabriela seems unsure which way to go: back to the warm, confining bed or out into the chilly, open desert.