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Saturday, May 25, 2024

IMPRESSIONS: “Backwards, Forwards, Back” Finds the Strength in Softness at Centenary Stage Through April 14

“Backwards, Forwards, Back” is playing at the Kutz Theater inside the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown through April 14. For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://www.centenarystageco.org/csc-backwards-forwards-back 

Rehearsal photos courtesy of Centenary Stage Company.

The sole character in Jacqueline Goldfinger’s new play “Backwards, Forwards, Back” thinks they know about strength. They’re back home from serving in Iraq. After the IEDs, the enemy combatants who are sometimes just children with AKs, the gruesome variety of deaths, they’ve survived and come home.

This must mean they’re strong, like they’re trained to be. Or, as they say in the poignant, pointed script, “like Americans are supposed to be.”

But coming home is a different kind of battle, and it requires a different kind of strength. The taut 65-minute play follows that battle inside the mind of our character, known only as Soldier.  

It’s a generic name, but not a generic story. In fact, the character details here are painfully specific– and that individuality points to the cruelty of PTSD. We come to know this character. They can be brash, macho, irreverent, even loving.

Then a trigger activates the wrong memory, and a flash flood of cortisol drowns them out. In the grip of trauma, we’re all reduced to the same terrified animal.

The Soldier has no patience for it. They don’t have patience for the new immersive virtual reality therapy that’s now required of them, either.  As the Soldier, Bess Miller swaggers convincingly across the stage but lets us see the brittleness behind the facade. The Soldier loudly proclaims that they don’t need this. Meanwhile, the VR headset looms on the wall behind them, heavy, waiting.

It’s a tense buildup. The Soldier paces, scoffs, casts a backward glance at the headset, averts their gaze. Paces faster, talks louder. We can sense where this is going. It’s animal.

The moment finally comes when the Soldier shoves the VR goggles onto their head in one quick motion. A blurry projection shows us what the Soldier sees. The images are blurry, sketchy, an impression of colors. The visual vagueness works; this is the landscape of memory.

Then the sound of gunfire starts. It’s startling, and then overwhelming. Miller’s performance embodies the frantic physicality of trauma, which may begin in the mind, but lives in the body– in adrenal glands and racing heartbeats, and screams ripped straight from the gut.

That’s where the Soldier begins. Their journey takes weeks, probably months. The script occasionally mentions the passage of time directly, but the more satisfying time markers are the changes we see in the Soldier. They take their therapy seriously, we’re told, never missing an appointment.

And the reward comes in subtle signs of change. The Soldier speaks with the old disdain about their sister’s “sensitivity,” but a moment later they stop and remind themselves that sensitivity can be a strength. They catch a whiff of desert sand in the breeze and their voice catches, but they ground themselves until they’re back in the present. Their bluster drops in volume, the brittleness softens and grows into something stronger that won’t snap when the adrenaline hits.

It comes down to a line that Goldfinger wisely gives us at a low point: strength means something different here. There are no medals awarded for this other kind of strength, no high honors. The everydayness of the Soldier’s struggles adds to their anguish. They aren’t fighting to win an epic battle that will be memorialized for the ages– they’re trying to enjoy a night out without a fistfight. They want to take their niece and nephew to a town festival without getting triggered.

Yet even when the Soldier doesn’t realize it, we see the tremendous courage in their journey. Without sentimentality or any moments that would get the swelling violins treatment in a film version, the Soldier tries again and again to take themselves back home. Eventually, where there had once been a literal and metaphorical wall, they find a door.

It may not open this time. But as they stand before it in parade rest position, spine straight, shoulders squared, they look content– like a warrior who has finally found rest.

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.