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Liz Lerman's 'Healing Wars' Explores Role of Healers in War

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'Healing Wars' company member Tamara Hurwitz Pullman at Gettysburg.
Kate Freer
'Healing Wars' company member Tamara Hurwitz Pullman at Gettysburg.

Seventy-four years ago, on May 13, 1940, newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a speech that many consider the greatest call-to-arms in history.

“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,’" he boomed, as he addressed the House of Commons.

It was the dawn of World War II, and in the newly-appointed prime minister’s very first House address, he expressed his determination to lead his country to “victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”

Choreographer Liz Lerman thinks a lot about those “costs” and that “terror” — so much so that she’s exploring them in a brand new production at Arena Stage.

Healing Wars, which opens June 6, explores how war can affect the people deeply entrenched in it: like soldiers and the individuals who heal them.

“A nurse that we met who served in Vietnam probably told us the most about what it was like and the stress,” Lerman says. “And you know, she really describes a lot of anger: anger at God, anger at how we’re in the situation that we’re in.”

Liz Lerman founded Takoma Park’s Dance Exchange back in 1976. She’s spent the past three years traveling the country, devising “Healing Wars” with a team of collaborators. She says inspiration first struck when she learned the 150th anniversary of the Civil War was on its way.

“It hadn’t even occurred to me that it was coming. It wasn’t on my radar at all,” she says.

That led her to dream up the National Civil War Project: a multi-city, multi-year, multi-disciplinary project that will eventually give birth to a dozen new works about, or inspired by, the Civil War, a subject Lerman’s been studying pretty much incessantly.

“I was surprised to find out there’s documentation for at least 400 women dressing as men and becoming soldiers,” she says. “But when I started looking in to the women and the women soldiers I also came across all the nurses. And I began to think it would be interesting to look at warfare and conflict and the aftermath not from the context of not just of healing, but the healers: the people responsible for it. And really wondering how could they handle themselves in the midst of all that carnage?”

In Healing Wars, Lerman has brought on performers to play multiple roles, including nurses, medics and soldiers, from a number of historic wars, from the Civil War to today.

The day I head to Southwest D.C. to attend a rehearsal, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman is portraying legendary Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and detailing a dream the nurse actually had more than 45 years after the Civil War ended.

“Two days before I died I dreamt I was in battle,” she says. “I was up to my knees in blood. I saw death as it is in the battlefield. Poor boys, with their arms shot off, their legs gone, lying on the cold ground with no nurses and no physicians to do anything for them.”

As Pullman talks, dancers move their bodies behind her. It’s an enthralling combination, one Liz Lerman says she’s been embracing more and more in her work through the years.

“Realistic theater doesn’t seem real to me. And pure dance doesn’t seem real to me, either,” she explains. “Mostly I think we live in a world between concrete things and abstractions. I think the movement and the language together — it’s not that in real life that would happen. But it feels more true to what our experience is in real life.”

Lerman further examines this idea in the way she has audiences enter the theater. Instead of coming in through the back doors and finding your seat, “you go backstage and the characters are kind of on display. And it’s all set up like the Civil War, so it’s a little bit like you’re in your own attic, your own history,” she says.

After that, you move on to the actual stage, “and you’re in the present time and then you go take your seat. And then you live between these worlds.”

Lerman blurs lines even more with her casting. In addition to professional performers — including Tamara Pullman’s husband, Bill Pullman, whose name might ring a few bells — Lerman has brought on several people who haven’t acted or danced professionally, but they’ve certainly experienced war first-hand.

“We have a pool of veterans, one of whom will perform each night,” she says. “Two of them are amputees, and another is the nurse from Vietnam.”

They first appear when audience members come out from backstage.

“They spend time with Bill; there’s a big part where you just listen to them talk on a bench and then you sit down,” she says. “And then you get to hear their story as time goes on.”

And their story isn’t just about what they went through in the midst of war. It’s also about what they went through when they came home. “Of course many people come back and re-enter their lives,” Lerman says. “I’m not sure that’s even good language. It’s like you never re-enter what you were. A lot of people have really difficult times.”

That’s why Liz Lerman hopes Healing Wars will encourage audiences to cross the gap she believes exists between veterans and civilians who don’t think they want to open up.

“I’ve met a fair number of veterans who say, ‘Contrary to the notion ‘You’ll never understand me,’ they say, ‘Actually, you could, if you listened.’”

And as Healing Wars suggests, sometimes ‘listening’ involves not just your ears, but your eyes, your mind, and, ultimately, your heart.

Healing Wars runs June 6-29 at Arena Stage.

Music: "Your Hand in Mine" by Explosions in the Sky from The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place

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