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Powerful 'Boots' is a shared story about war's cost

PROVIDENCE -- OK, look. This is what theater is for.

It's for bringing people into a room to speak and think and feel something unexpected about something important. Together. It's for sharing a million uniquely individual stories to remind us that we all share one story: We are all human. And when we experience a real work of art with other humans, we remember what that means.

''Boots on the Ground" is a real work of art.

It began with a desire on the part of Amanda Dehnert, acting artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company, to commission a play for this season that would reflect the current lives of real Rhode Islanders. In doing research, Dehnert and her team noticed one issue that kept coming up, something important that people felt they weren't hearing enough about in the public discourse: the war in Iraq and, more specifically, its effect on the people who were fighting it and on those who waited for them at home.

So Trinity's Laura Kepley and D. Salem Smith set out to interview Rhode Islanders affected by the war. They ended up with 200 hours of tape from conversations with more than 70 people. Out of that mass of material, they have assembled an elegantly shaped, funny, tragic, touching, silly, and deeply real 90 minutes of ordinary people telling the truth about their lives.

We hear from a high-school dropout who enlisted after his car broke down, keeping him from his job at McDonald's. We meet a wife who'd been married just six days when her husband was deployed. We see other wives working in a support center for families, a captain who grieves the men he lost, a doctor who meditates on his deepening expertise in amputation and prosthetics, a newspaper editor who chose to be embedded with US troops in part to confront his memories of Vietnam. And that's just Act 1.

Act 2 may sound, at first, like a gimmick: It's an audience discussion. But Trinity is serious about stimulating a real conversation as part of this work, and on opening night, at least, that developed into a thoughtful, multifaceted, and respectful exchange that did, in fact, continue the experience we'd shared in Act 1.

During the discussion, a few people complained that none of the play's voices belonged to a protester. They missed the point: ''Boots on the Ground" is successful precisely because it avoids polemic, on either side. It aims to show us the human cost of war, and it succeeds. Then it wisely lets us reflect on whether the cost is worth it, rather than telling us what to feel.

Not just Kepley (who directed) and Smith deserve credit for that subtle approach. The five actors who inhabit a multitude of roles -- Richard Donelly, Anne Scurria, Stephen Thorne, Rachael Warren, and Joe Wilson Jr. -- all do magnificent work here. Richly varied in gesture, mood, affect, and accent, the people they bring to life are just that: people.

William Lane costumes them nicely, too, in beige tones that evoke uniforms when necessary but can just as easily clothe a social worker or a worried mom. Beowulf Boritt's simple set, a wooden platform on gritty sand, allows similar transformations and leaves room for Jamie McElhinney's strong video projections. Though the music sometimes seems more Vietnam-era rock than Iraq War rap, Peter Sasha Horowitz's sound design supports everyone onstage.

Perhaps most of all, we should be grateful to the people who agreed to share their stories. Fittingly, the show begins and ends with excerpts from interviews, which gradually blend into or out of the speaking voice of an actor onstage. We are at once reminded that these stories are real and rewarded with their transformation into real and powerful art.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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