Urbanite Theatre Tells a Soldier's Story with Backwards Forwards Back
I’ve read articles about the use of virtual reality treatment for veterans suffering from PTSD, and the results have sometimes been promising. So it’s intriguing to watch Jacqueline Goldfinger’s Backwards Forwards Back, now onstage in a National New Play Network rolling world premiere at Urbanite Theatre.
The intimate theater is a good venue for the one-man piece starring U.S. Army veteran L. James as, simply, The Soldier. (Goldfinger’s concept of the work allows for the role to be played by an actor of any gender, and in its premieres in other theaters it will also feature veterans in the part.) A simple but effective set design by Jeff Weber, with assists from projection design by Alex Pinchin and lighting by Lyndell McDonald, places us “alone” in a room with James’ soldier as he picks up the VR headset and forces himself to relive scenes from his combat days in Iraq.
The horrors of war have left the soldier in deep psychological trouble, and medication and traditional therapy haven’t helped. VR is his last chance, and he’s taking it only because it might allow him to see his young niece and nephew again. His sister has forbidden contact with them after an episode where a flashback led him to a harmful action.
So that’s his motivation, but the road to mental well-being is, as Goldfinger’s title says, “backwards, forwards, back.” There’s progress, but there are also retreats back to his worst moments. Through James’ intense performance, and through the flashing lights, alarms, sirens and other stage effects, the audience is taken vividly through the soldier’s psyche. (Warning: There’s also plenty of strong language used here, as you might expect from a war-hardened vet.)
Goldfinger’s play is short—only an hour or so, with no intermission—albeit powerful, and James (under the direction of Brendan Ragan) makes a compelling plea of sorts for us as a society to take better care of those who have served us and are forever changed by that service. One can imagine Backwards Forwards Back being staged outside of theaters—for veterans’ groups, perhaps, or students of an appropriate age. But for the moment, it’s available at Urbanite (through April 23), and worth seeing. For tickets, call the box office at (941) 321-1397 or visit urbanitetheatre.com.
By the way, this may be the last Urbanite production directed by Ragan, for a while anyway. He’s leaving Sarasota to become artistic director for the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Illinois. Fellow Urbanite co-founder Summer Wallace will become producing artistic director at Urbanite as Ragan steps down in mid-April.