It is strange, says New York actress and playwright and Persian Gulf War veteran Heather Grayson, to be watching Operation Iraqi Freedom unfold live and in color on television, thanks to "embedded" reporters, as Coalition forces steamroll the unexpectedly meek Republican Guard of dictator Saddam Hussein. Grayson, who was a green U.S. Army second lieutenant at the start of Operation Desert Storm (January and February 1991), has transformed her Gulf War experience into a critically acclaimed one-woman show, After the Storm, which earned a standing ovation when Grayson performed it at West Point.
"It was bizarre to watch from this end of things," Grayson confesses. "I didn't get to watch it on TV before. It was frustrating not to be a part of it.… I wish we hadn't gone to war, but since we did, I wish I'd been there."
From May 7 to 10, the PlayMakers Repertory Company will host the Bombshell Productions LLC (in association with Good Bones) National Tour of After the Storm, written and performed by Heather Grayson and directed by Tessa Leigh Derfner. Grayson says the tour started last November and is still adding fall bookings.
Set in Kuwait in the aftermath of the largest ammunition-dump accident since Vietnam, After the Storm details Grayson's role in cleaning up the first explosion and defending herself against charges of negligent homicide when there was a second explosion, killing three soldiers, during the cleanup effort that 2nd Lt. Grayson commanded. After the Storm is particularly eloquent in expressing Grayson's disillusionment with the Army bureaucracy that unsuccessfully tried to make her a scapegoat for the second accident.
"The events of the play are entirely autobiographical," Grayson says, "and while there was some interest in 'getting it out of my system' to begin with, I also realized that I had a good story on my hands. Then it was just a matter of shaping it into a play, because that's what I know, the world of theater."
After the Storm (then called Acting Commander) debuted in December 1996 in the Old Playmakers Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Grayson was working on her Master of Fine Arts degree in acting. "I picked [the script] up again a couple of years later, reworked it and added more detail too it, and performed it in New York," Grayson says. "We started at the Access Theater [opening on Sept. 7, 2001] and went to the Grove Street Theatre and ended up at the West End Theatre."
She notes, "We [later] got standing ovations at [the United States Military Academy at] West Point. Even the more liberal New York audiences are excited by [After the Storm]. So, we are able to please both civilians and soldiers alike."
Born in Ft. Jackson, SC, Heather Grayson joined the U.S. Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), so she afford the steep tuition at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature in 1989.
"No one ever thought there would be a war," Grayson admits. "War was pretty much unheard of then. I was just doing [ROTC] to pay for Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt's a pretty expensive school."
She entered the Army as a second lieutenant in 1989. She left the Green Machine in 1993. "I'd just made the captain's list," Grayson says, "but I turned it down to get out."
Heather Grayson earned her MFA degree in acting from UNC in 1997. About years later, she co-founded Bombshell Productions in New York City. "A couple of years ago," Grayson explains, "we wanted to do classical theater, and we wanted there to be women's parts, so we did Hamlet with a female Hamlet."
After the Storm is a highly unusual coming-of-age story about a naive second lieutenant who grew up in a hurry when Operation Desert Storm commenced. "We're constantly working on the script," says Grayson. "We have audience talk-back sessions after the show. If we keep getting the same questions over and over, we add [a segment] to the show. So, we've added several scenes since the show was last performed."
Currently, Grayson says, After the Storm "is 11 scenes with no intermission. It lasts a little over an hour."
She adds, "The theme [of the play] that is the most interesting to me is the disillusionment of growing up and believing certain things and [later] realizing that they are not as pure as we first believed them to be. The young girl's story [in After the Storm] takes place against the backdrop of war. It is not a war story per se."
Grayson says the play is completely autobiographical. "There's one moment in the show that is stretched a little bit," she says, "and there are some characters that are spliced together. But basically it's a true story from start to finish.
"It's the story of a young girl who goes straight from college to the Gulf War without anything in between. There is a very large ammunition accident," Grayson explains, "that results in a cleanup operation that I was in charge of. While we were cleaning up, three soldiers were killed in a second accident. The story from there is that the Army went looking for a scapegoat and I'm it. The rest the audience will see for themselves. I don't want to give it all away."
Although After the Storm deals with life-and-death matters, says Heather Grayson, it has its humorous moments, too. "This is a funny take on a serious matter," she claims. "It certainly ends on a serious note. But the show is funny. It's not a big downer about the war. So, come and enjoy it."
Director Tessa Leigh Derfner, set designer Jeremy Chernick, lighting designer Frank Dendanto III, costume designer "Uncle Sam," sound designer Todd Griffin, and video designer Julian Rad create a colorful backdrop against which the play's events unfold. "The primary costume is the Desert Camouflage Uniform," quips Heather Grayson, "supplemented by other Army protective gear. Otherwise, we're trapped in late Eighties/early Nineties fashions."
Grayson adds, "We have a great design team. I had help once I got to New York.… It's great to have a design team come in and make you look good."
Although standing ovations are nice for the actress/playwright's ego, performing After the Storm has proven to be therapeutic as well. "It really has [been therapeutic]," Grayson agrees, "but not by design. Certainly the effect of doing it is that I get to push all of this stuff out of me every night, and that's good."
Reliving old and sometimes painful memories, night after night, can be a real challenge. As a performer, Grayson must muster the necessary stamina for each night's solo performance. "It's over an hour of pretty high-level stuff," she notes. "The director wanted to evoke a lot of the temporariness of the setting, my youth, and the 'here today, gone tomorrow' military themes. That was important to her as a director."
"In 1990," according to PlayMakers preshow publicity, "actor and playwright Heather Grayson was a 22-year-old, naive graduate of Vanderbilt University when she began serving in the U.S. Army. She had unusual smarts, a steel will and an all-American ambition to succeed. On July 23, 1991, the green second lieutenant was commanding a bomb disposal unit in Kuwait. When three of her soldiers were killed doing their job, she faced charges of negligent homicide. 'After the Storm' details her often-funny transition from civilian to military life, and strips away the bravado to reveal the true sacrifices of wartime. From a female soldier's point of view and without touting a political agenda, she courageously shares her own personal military coming-of-age against a backdrop of war, a tale universal enough to transcend time, place and gender."
From West Point, NY, to Washington, DC, After the Storm has impressed audiences and critics alike, particularly during its New York run, which began four days before 9/11. The New York Post raved, "Gulf war vet shows true grit in one-woman stage drama... an extraordinary one-woman show."
Terry Teachout of The Washington Post agreed, "Unlike so many of today's single-character plays, this one is not an angry rant or a self-indulgent exercise in auto-therapy. It is, rather, a sharply observed slice of real life transformed into timely and gripping theater by a smart and funny young lady."
NPR Weekend Edition Sunday called Heather Grayson's autobiographical drama "As timely as tomorrow's headlines.... 'After the Storm' [is] a slice of frighteningly real life turned into gripping theater by a smart writer who also knows how to act. And, it's funny — even about serious things. Especially about serious things."
PlayMakers Repertory Company hosts the Bombshell Productions LLC (in association with Good Bones) National Tour of After the Storm Wednesday-Saturday, May 7-10, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 11, at 2 p.m. in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill. $15 ($10 students). (NOTE: There will be talkback sessions with the actor and director on May 7 and 9.) 919/962-PLAY (7529). http://www.playmakersrep.org/afterstorm.html and http://www.bombshellproductions.com/bombshell/current/ [inactive 8/04] .