When director Bryan Doerries read about Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans returning with "invisible wounds," it reminded him of the ancient Greek war plays he read in college.
"In addition to being a playwright, Sophocles was a general in the Athenian army," Doerries says. "He wrote these plays specifically about war and things people who had been to war or cared for those who went to war would intrinsically understand.
"In reading these plays, it seemed like they could be ripped from today's headlines."
Doerries decided he wanted to present them to today's troops. He spent a year looking for a military official who thought it would be a good idea. When Doerries finally presented a program, he found out how right his instincts were.
"People quoted lines from the play as if they had known them their entire lives and they related them to their lives," he says of that performance for 400 active-duty Marines and their families in San Diego, where the talk-back session lasted three hours.
"One of the first people to stand up and speak was a woman who said, 'I'm the proud mother of a Marine and the wife of a Navy Seal, and my husband went away four times to war, and each time he came back just like Ajax, dragging invisible bodies into our house.' And to quote from the play, 'Our home is a slaughterhouse.'"
Doerries has since made hundreds of Theater of War presentations, often involving Oscar-nominated actors David Strathairn, Jeffrey Wright and Jesse Eisenberg in emotionally gripping readings of plays including Ajax and Philoctetes. Under the banner of Outside the Wire, he also has developed programs dealing with addiction, death, prison and other issues.
Doerries and several collaborators — none of the big-name participants — will be in Lexington on Wednesday for a presentation and discussion as part of the University of Kentucky Gaines Center for the Humanities' Bale Boone Symposium, which this year focuses on art in healing. That, the director says, is an entirely appropriate forum for the program, designed to help people start dealing with the aftermaths of their experiences.
It is particularly important, he says, when considering the high rates of suicide and domestic violence among military personnel and their families. The plays, he says, can be conversation starters, telling the audience that their experiences are not new or unique.
"When someone does that, when they speak the truth of their experience and break through the silence and the shame and the stigma associated with talking about war and its aftermath," Doerries says, "it gives other people in the audience permission to talk."