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On the home front

In ‘Ajax’ at the ART, Linda Powell plays an ancient role with modern repercussions

“It’s not foreign to me, because it’s the world I grew up in,’’ Linda Powell says of playing a woman in a military family in “Ajax,’’ Sophocles’s fifth-century BC tragedy set during the Trojan War. “It’s not foreign to me, because it’s the world I grew up in,’’ Linda Powell says of playing a woman in a military family in “Ajax,’’ Sophocles’s fifth-century BC tragedy set during the Trojan War. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — The first time Linda Powell went to Hawaii, the Vietnam War was still raging. Her father, Army Major Colin L. Powell, was there on leave from his second tour of duty in Vietnam, and 3-year-old Linda flew with her mother, Alma, to visit him.

The next time Linda Powell went to Hawaii was last October. A New York actress, she was there with a company called Theater of War, performing readings from Sophocles’s “Ajax’’ — a play about an anguished Trojan War hero returned from battle — at Schofield Barracks, an Army base on Oahu that has sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

For Powell, who grew up on Army bases around the country, the experience was unexpectedly affecting.

“A lot of the actors were like, ‘This is weird. Everybody’s in uniform,’ but I was like, ‘No, this is home,’ ’’ Powell said. “I had not been on base in such a long time, so I was amazed at how it felt like home, and it was good to remember that.’’ But, she added, it made her a little ashamed of “not thinking about what they’re going through enough.’’

Powell, who has a gentle voice, a direct gaze, and an easy charm, told the story in a rehearsal hall at American Repertory Theater, whose own production of “Ajax’’ is now in previews and opens tomorrow night. In it, Powell plays Tecmessa, the wife of the title character, who despite her pleas commits suicide.

Tecmessa “at least tries to hold a piece of [Ajax] together that nobody else sees, which military wives are doing all the time,’’ said Powell, noting that she finds almost nothing in the play a stretch to understand.

“It’s not foreign to me, because it’s the world I grew up in,’’ she said. “My mother married my father and three, four months later he was in Vietnam. My brother was born while he was in Vietnam. My father came back; I was born. Three years later, he went to Vietnam.’’

That her father — who would go on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security adviser, and secretary of state — was sent twice to Vietnam is “nothing compared to today,’’ when soldiers “are deploying five, six, seven, eight times,’’ she said.

“I was so shocked when I started to really look at it and think about what that does to the families and what that does to the kids who are growing up in that kind of stress,’’ she said. “But those women are amazing. They hold the families together.’’

Powell was 11, at Fort Campbell, Ky., when she first felt the allure of the stage, playing the Headless Horseman in a Halloween show. But it was in high school, at Fort Carson, Colo., that she realized she wanted to become an actress. In the 10 months her family lived there, she played Bunny in John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves’’ and was gearing up to play Medea when they moved again, to Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

“But Kansas was good, too,’’ she said amiably. “We did ‘For Colored Girls.’ ’’

The adaptability that comes in handy for Army brats is also useful for performers, and Powell said a lot of people who grew up in the military go into acting. At the ART, however, her background makes her a rarity in the “Ajax’’ cast, so she has spoken up in rehearsal to mention the occasional point of military protocol. “State Department protocol, I don’t think that’s come in handy,’’ she said, laughing.

Directed by Sarah Benson, the ART’s “Ajax’’ will be a multimedia affair, with a 30-person chorus appearing almost entirely on video. The play is infrequently produced — probably because Ajax, tormented by the goddess Athena and the loss of his former glory, falls on his sword midway through it, Benson said.

“Even if you look at old scholia from the time, people are like, ‘The suicide happens and then what?’ ’’ she said.

But Benson said she is equally fascinated by the aftermath of Ajax’s demise, in which his brother, Teucer, fights Ajax’s enemies to bury him.

“It’s about how do you honor someone,’’ she said, “and how does someone’s reputation continue after their death when other people are sort of charged with carrying on the torch.’’

As Powell has seen with Theater of War, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company that works with military communities all over the country, different populations pick up on different threads of the play. At a reading at a VA medical center, Desert Storm and Vietnam War veterans cared most about “the responsibility of the community to take care of Ajax, or to take care of Ajax’s memory,’’ she said. In Hawaii, military wives told her that Tecmessa’s struggles reminded them of their own. (Theater of War will present two evenings of free readings at the ART, Feb. 28 and March 7, for mixed audiences of civilians and military personnel.)

The ART’s “Ajax’’ is a means of letting the wider community consider the play “with the layer of today’s war on top of it,’’ Powell said. “Because it’s too easy for us to shut this out.’’

Powell is an admitted news junkie, and a pair of recent NPR stories involving requests for military burials brought the play to mind.

“I was surprised I hadn’t thought of it before,’’ she wrote later by e-mail, “but when Teucer argues for the right to bury his brother with proper ceremony, it’s parallel to families wanting the honor of a military funeral for their loved ones. It says you gave yourself to this country and we honor you.’’

The stories, she said, recalled to her the years when her family lived at Fort Myer in Virginia. Horse-drawn, flag-draped caskets would pass the house on their way to the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.

“My mother volunteered as an ‘Arlington Lady’ during the time she lived there,’’ Powell wrote. “There are about 60 of them — a silent ‘Arlington Lady’ attends every Army funeral at the cemetery so no soldier is ever buried alone.

“Anyway,’’ she added, “I thanked the radio this morning ’cause it gives me something to think about as we work the second half of the play.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

AJAX Through March 13. Tickets: $25-$65, discounts for seniors, student rush $15.

THEATER OF WAR Feb. 28 and March 7 at 7 p.m. Tickets: free by reservation.

Presented by American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. 617-547-8300, www .americanrepertorytheater.org