‘Healing Wars': What happens when soldiers come home?

Paul Hurley and Keith A. Thompson perform in \'Healing Wars\' at Arena Stage. (Courtesy Arena Stage)

Heather Brady, special to WTOP.com

WASHINGTON — What happens to the human spirit when it is pushed to the limit? That is just one of the questions asked by “Healing Wars,” a new multimedia dance production starring Bill Pullman (“Independence Day”).

Director and choreographer Liz Lerman was inspired to create the show — which “explores the experiences of healers tested with treating the physical and psychic wounds of battle” — after a trip to D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre.

There, Lerman noticed the backstage area was divided into many little rooms, and envisioned dancers in each room doing moves based on the Civil War, which was celebrating its 150th anniversary at the time.

The MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner then wandered through an exhibit at the National Civil War Medical Museum in Frederick, Maryland, and was fascinated by photographs of veterans missing limbs. It was here that the most arresting part of “Healing Wars” took shape, she says: “It starts with the people themselves.”

Lerman brought in Paul Hurley, a Navy veteran injured in Bahrain, to add a dose of reality to “Healing Wars.”

Lerman says she choreographed his movement as an amputee in the same way she directs all her dancers, even the most talented ones.

“I might give an ‘assignment.’ In this case, he sat on a bench with another performer. I said, ‘let’s just see how you can lean on each other, how do you share weight, how do you pull away from each other,'” Lerman says.

The duet that Hurley performs with another dancer, who is not an amputee, involves both of them sitting on a bench together at one point.

“It’s like their feet are flat on the floor, except that there are three legs there instead of four,” Lerman says.

Audience members connect intimately with the cast, especially Hurley, whose struggle often brings tears to viewers, Lerman says.

“The movement lets your emotions live side-by-side with your intellect,” she says.

“Culturally, often we separate these things, to our peril. Anytime we have an opportunity to let people think on the edge of their seat or the edge of their brain and also feel — I think that’s a really good thing.”

The physical nature of war, Lerman says, makes a dance-focused multimedia production the right form to present war-related concepts.

“It all starts with the body,” she says. “Maybe with drones, the body is only at the other end of the gun. But up until this point, it has been about the body.”

See a teaser below:

Lerman also links the Civil War to current wars in her piece, allowing characters to cross back and forth between time periods to illustrate similarities.

“The wars change, the reasons change, the conditions change, [but] the functions don’t change,” she says.

“A mother is a mother is a mother. A soldier is a soldier. And a doctor trying to patch these people up, a nurse who’s out there trying to patch these people up amidst this carnage, I don’t think that changes.”

Lerman worked on the piece while spending a semester as Harvard University’s artist in residence in 2011.

When Lerman told Molly Smith, the artistic director at Arena Stage, about her piece, Smith brought it to George Washington University. The university commissioned the piece, joining with four theater companies and other universities. Together, they have teamed up to produce several works of art, Lerman’s being the first in this series.

“Healing Wars” runs at the Arena Stage through June 29. The Arena Stage website has more information.

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