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Soldier copes with PTSD in PlayMakers' one-woman play, 'Penelope'


The first rehearsal of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s newest production, “Penelope,” coincided with the rampage of a U.S. soldier that resulted in the death of 16 Afghan civilians.

The one-woman play, which premieres tonight in Kenan Theatre, is about the homecoming of a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder who committed similar deeds.

Director Lisa Rothe had been working on the play for more than four years, but this news made the material resonate for her in a new way.

“Suddenly it became very real and tangible,” she said.

The play, written by and starring Ellen McLaughlin, is a modern retelling of “The Odyssey.”

Tonight’s performance, part of PlayMakers’ PRC2 Series, will be its world premiere.

“‘The Odyssey’ is a book about post-traumatic stress, and about how long it takes to get home from the battlefield, and how hard it is,” McLaughlin said.

The performance will be followed by a panel discussion featuring experts on war and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Jeffrey Meanza, associate artistic director for the company.

“It’s using classical literature as a springboard into a discussion that people will be surprised about,” Meanza said.

McLaughlin started the project more than five years ago, after the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles commissioned her to create a performance based on ancient Greek literature.

Initially, McLaughlin planned to do a song cycle featuring all of the female characters in “The Odyssey.”

But then she decided to tell the story through a modern lens, focusing on Odysseus’ wife.

She said she still wanted music to be an integral part of the production, so she commissioned award-winning composer Sarah Kirkland Snider to compose accompaniment.

“I just wanted to work with her and do something that would really scare the pants off of me,” McLaughlin said.

Though music is an important part of the show, Meanza said it’s nothing like a musical.

“It’s different than a musical where someone breaks into song,” he said. “It’s more seamless.”

McLaughlin was on the PlayMakers stage for last year’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” — also a one-woman show — adapted from Joan Didion’s memoir of the same name.

“This is quite different, because there’s a lot going on, and a lot of music,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like the same density of text.”

But she said it’s still challenging.

“If you lose your concentration, it can be perilous.”

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