Greek tragedy doesn’t generally figure in any way into the average American’s daily life, but the lessons that can be learned from what was written 2,500 years ago can still have a huge impact, once they’re listened to or read.
That’s exactly what “Theater of War,” a part of the Outside the Wire theater program, does for Sophocles’ play, “Ajax,” which tells the story of the eponymous Greek warrior’s post-war mental breakdown and eventual demise at his own hand. It presents it in a way that’s searingly relevant, especially to the group of veterans and family members there for a presentation of “Theater of War,” which was held Monday night at the University of Maine.
“Theater of War,” presented by Lunder-Dineen Health Education Alliance of Maine as part of the yearly Maine Center on Aging’s Geriatrics Colloquium, has been visiting cities across the country for the past five years. It brings together regional actors and national stars — in this case, Oscar-nominated (for 2005’s “Good Night and Good Luck”) actor David Strathairn, who performed the title role in “Ajax,” as well as the role of Greek general Agamemnon. He was joined by New York actress Patricia Buckley and Maine actors Rob Cameron, Dustin Tucker and Erik Moody. They were directed by Bryan Doerries, founder with Phyllis Kaufman of Outside the Wire.
“I’ve been lucky enough to with with Bryan for a while now, and I try to do this every time that I can,” said Strathairn, best known for his turn as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night and Good Luck,” as well as for roles in films like “Sneakers,” “The Firm,” “L.A. Confidential” and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” “Every reaction you get at each performance is different. I learn something new every time.”
In light of the developments of the past decade, in which Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has become a real, definable condition present in thousands of veterans nationwide, it seems clear that Ajax suffers from a severe case of PTSD. He feels slighted when he does not receive his honor — in this case, not receiving the armor of renowned warrior Achilles. He has seen horrors beyond imagining, and upon his return home, he kills a barn full of farm animals, he lashes out at his wife and child, and then retreats to the forest, where he commits suicide by falling on his sword.
Interestingly, plays like “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” both written by Sophocles and both performed in “Theater of War” presentations, were used in much the same way during the 5th century B.C. as they are being used by Outside the Wire.
“Sophocles was a general himself. These plays would be performed for soldiers, in much the same kind of context as we are reading them today, in ‘Theater of War,” said Strathairn. “It’s part of a story that’s thousands of years old, about the pain that soldiers experience.”
The panel discussion after the reading was led by retired Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, a renowned military psychiatrist, as well as Maine speakers including Bucksport military spouse Christine Petravicz, Newport-based Vietnam veteran Mark Carney, Bangor-based social worker Elizabeth Small and Sgt. 1st Class Nathaniel Grace, who served twice in Afghanistan. During the question-and-answer period that followed, veterans and family members recounted their own experiences and stories dealing with someone who has PTSD.
Outside the Wire, which produces “Theater of War,” also produces other plays from all eras that deal with other sensitive topics, such as a reading from Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” for a discussion about substance abuse, Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” for a discussion about domestic violence, and Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound,” for a discussion about rehabilitating convicted felons, both in and out of prison.
For more information, visit outsidethewirellc.com