Portland-based playwright Andrea Stolowitz‘s new work, Ithaka, deals with the very modern experiences of an Afghan War veteran. But the play opens in a classical mode, with Odysseus taking the stage to tell audiences the story of his 10-year journey home to his beloved Ithaka after the Trojan War.
Ithaka’s main character, Marine Captain Elaine Edwards, has a similar journey she must undertake after a difficult tour of duty in Afghanistan. Like many soldiers, she is returning to the civilian world, struggling to deal with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and the challenges of reconciling her wartime experiences with her old life. After a fight with her husband, she takes off on an Odyssean journey of her own, full of obstacles and demons to fight.
The reference to Homer’s Odyssey both sets a thematic framework for Elaine’s physical and emotional journey and helps Stolowitz broaden her tale to emphasize the commonalities of the soldier’s experience – to blend many different stories into the tale of one soldier.
Stolowitz’s work has been getting increasing exposure in recent months. Her previous play Antarktikos won the Oregon Book Award in April and recently premiered at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. She was commissioned to write Ithaka after winning Artists Repertory Theatre’s inaugural Levin/Fowler Prize, established to develop original works for the company.
Stolowitz says the commission gave her the rare opportunity to do more extensive research for this play. To ground her characters in real-world experiences, she drew on dozens of interviews with local veterans. As an outsider, she says she worried about honoring the soldiers’ stories and getting the details right, but eventually she realized that the story she wanted to tell was a universal one.
“I wanted to do so many interviews that it wasn’t one person’s story; it was everybody’s story,” says Stolowitz. “I didn’t want to write about a specific person’s experiences; I wanted to write about a specific slice of the biggest majority, the human experience.”
Ithaka is currently in the middle of its world premiere run at Artists Repertory Theatre. Arts & Life spoke to Stolowitz about the challenges of delving into the unfamiliar world of the military and the importance of closing the divide between veterans and the civilian world.
Arts & Life: Why did you decide to use the story of the Odyssey as the thematic structure for the play?
Andrea Stolowitz: I wanted Odysseus to open and close the play because I wanted it to be not just about this war. It’s about soldiers coming home in general and he’s the ultimate guy who’s wandered for 10 years only to make it home and then have lots more problems. The story we have of the Odyssey is sort of the nice version; it’s the metaphor version of a war. But if Odysseus were to tell his own story, what would his story be? Maybe it wouldn’t be so beautifully metaphoric and have these monsters. Maybe the monsters are more literal. Once I began to think that way I realized that Elaine’s journey is her Odyssey. Elaine’s Odyssey has as many weird things in it as Odysseus’ did but they are quite literal for her. If we’re seeing things from her perspective, we see these monsters as who they are in her life.
Also, once I realized that I was dealing with the structure of the Odyssey, that it was about someone’s journey home, it gave me permission to make the play and the characters travel. It became a physical journey as well as an emotional and mental journey. And it gave Elaine a destination, which is to deliver these letters [to her friend’s mother].
A&L: You mention in your artist’s notes that the idea of writing this play really scared you. Why?
AS: I guess because I felt like I didn’t have the right to go in and ask about these stories. They seemed very personal and I didn’t know anything about the military. I did interviews with veterans at both Camp Pendleton and in Portland at the Vet Center and many people were very willing to talk to me. At first, I still felt like maybe they would look at me suspiciously or as some sort of voyeuristic artist who was interested in exploiting their experience. But their reaction was completely positive. They were just happy that I cared, that I wanted to write a story about an experience they were going through and that I found those experiences important and worthy of art.
During the rehearsals for the play, I was kind of nervous about [the soldiers’ reactions]. So I texted one of the people I interviewed during the rehearsals and said, ‘I really hope that this does your stories justice and that it’s a good play.’ He wrote back and said, ‘Any outlet that tells any of our stories does them justice and for our purposes it doesn’t matter if it’s a good play.’ It was such a nice thing to hear because at that point I was so worried about all the details. But his point was to just get these stories out there. So what if they are a little wrong? The stories need to be told.
A&L: Why did you feel it was important for you to delve into this world as a playwright?
AS: It felt uncomfortable for me, for the purpose of a play, to begin to explore [the experiences of veterans]. But actually the reason I’m writing the play is because I hadn’t explored it and because it made me uncomfortable.
I felt like I’ve been sitting here as a civilian for 10 years, not really engaged with what’s going on in a visceral way. How is it that in our society right now we have all of these people who were involved in this tremendous push in this war that we read about but we don’t really sit down and talk to anybody about it? Why aren’t we having that conversation and what is stopping us?
So there’s a divide that’s difficult to overcome. But it shouldn’t be so hard. We just don’t have a mechanism for processing things culturally that are happening to us right now in this country. I guess that’s what art does.
A&L: The main character of Elaine goes through an intense emotional journey through the course of this play. Was it a difficult part to write?
AS: It was hard to write. It’s hard to spend so much time each day with someone who is kind of losing their mind. What a playwright does is to channel the experience, to put it into the words, and what an actor does is decode that, to take it out of the words. In order to authentically put that in — and for an actor to be able to take that out — to some degree you have to experience those emotions. You have to find those points in your life where you felt something like those things because it has to be an authentic experience that you are creating.
For example, you have to think about the times when, no matter how hard you tried, you could not agree with your spouse. These people [in the play] are trying and trying but they are missing each other. I’ve never been to war, but certainly I’ve been in similar situations with my spouse. So you have to go there and it’s not the most fun place to be. That’s why I go away a lot to write. Not only does it give you the freedom of time, it also allows you to explore some unpleasant things without having to have a lot of people around. Then you can put it in the play.