Please note that this review contains discussion of sexual trauma.
It’s rare that a sentence in a theatre press release can stir you to anger. But try this one: ‘female soldiers in the US army are statistically more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than they are to be killed in combat’. In Heroine, writer and actor Mary Jane Wells portrays one such soldier: a former staff sergeant pseudonymously called Danna Davis. Apart from changes in details of settings and operations made to preserve anonymity, the play tells Davis’s story with what feels like unswerving accuracy.
After being kicked out by her conservative parents when they discover her sexuality, Davis joins the military, mainly to avoid homelessness. Despite finding herself the only woman in her company, she proves herself as a soldier and rises swiftly through the ranks. One night, she is raped by several men with whom she is serving. Her attackers act with impunity, knowing that she will not press charges against them: in the era of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, disclosing that she was assaulted after leaving a lesbian bar would mean the swift and brutal end of what she now considers her career.
In exploring how such an event as this can echo down through the remainder of a military life – including into long years of therapy and beyond – Wells entirely embodies her protagonist, whether in harrowing episodes of rape and military attack, or down into Davis’s progression through helplessness, rage and redemption. At no point does she shy away from any aspect of Davis’s story – including, at times, the pitch-dark humour of a survivor.
Her mesmerising performance combines flawlessly with carefully considered staging and lighting – and, in particular, an all-encompassing, at times even overwhelming sound design – to bring her audience into direct contact with both the sharpness of battle and the raw horror of sexual assault. But while shock, like statistics, can often be strong enough to create a sense of outrage that is as violent as it is fleeting, what Wells more cleverly, painstakingly depicts is the sheer, exhausting labour of healing.
The real miracle of this play is that it eventually becomes as much an act of healing for Davis herself – the real Danna Davis, behind the made-up name – as it is a dramatisation of her story. And as its audience lets that story become part of their own, it finds itself embodying a singular truth: that the effects of a play like Heroine will far outlast anything that a mere soundbite – or even a whole press release – could hope to convey.
All photos by Greg Macvean.