In its first 10 minutes or so, Twist, Pull, Smoke, Run-Motherfucker-Run!! doesn’t seem any more authentic than any other play in which people jump onstage and pretend to be other people—like, uh, just about every play ever produced. The initial situation of bad communication threatening a couple’s relationship seems well-trafficked. And the lopsided interest level of the dynamic doesn’t help: He’s a couple of years removed from the War in Afghanistan, wrestling with serious mental baggage; she’s a New York City art student who, while admittedly starving and kind of conflicted, still says all the artsy stuff about artsy stuff being all artsy and serious and stuff. Only one of those is interesting.

But amid this scene of domestic intranquility, one key visual indicator suggests not all is what it seems: a hulky man dressed in military-looking garb sitting on a chair to the far left of the stage. His back toward the audience, he seems passed out, but occasionally, he seizes and spasms until he finally keels over and falls to the ground.

And no one notices. This touch of what one of the writers later calls magic realism becomes fully realized when the man springs to life and is revealed as the voice of our veteran’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): his Jiminy Cricket with a mouth like a Marine, one of his best friends, a fallen comrade and the part of himself that he must say goodbye to but needs to hang on to to keep from feeling truly alone.

That’s when shit gets real, and being real is what this play is all about. Matthew Domenico, who plays our veteran, and Brock Joseph, who plays his Charon in reverse, are both veterans. Domenico served in the Marines from 2008 to 2011, and Joseph served in the U.S. Navy from 2004 to 2008. Both admit to having experienced PTSD-related symptoms for years after leaving the military, so they realize the need for fellow veterans to open up and share their stories. But they also understand how difficult that is for many. As theater practitioners, they know how powerful a medium the stage can be to tell those tales.

So why not merge the two? This play is the first of a four-part war series their fledgling Foxhole Theater Co. plans to stage to try to bridge the gap between veterans and civilians. They’ve found that veterans think only a fellow vet could understand or care about their stories and civilians think vets are closed off and anti-social or time bombs waiting to go off.

That is why collaboration between veterans and civilians is so integral to the process. Which brings us to the third member of the cast: civilian Katherine Connor Duff. Domenico and Duff collaborated on the script, with the goal of achieving something that helps both sides of the equation understand how important it is to not only open up, but also listen.

“There is already a huge divide between civilians and veterans,” Duff says, based solely on knowing what military service is like. But that divide “adds to the isolation veterans already feel when returning home.”

So many vets don’t talk about their experiences and all the feelings associated with them, and for those who are struggling with PTSD, depression, or the “loneliness and boredom” that Joseph says all vets feel to some degree upon returning, it can lead some—such as the reportedly 22 veterans per day currently killing themselves across America—to contemplate the very real choice one of this play’s characters considers.

It’s what everyone involved in this production wants to avoid. And impressing upon both veterans and civilians the importance of communication is vital to their mission.

“It’s not the VA that’s going to help veterans,” Duff says. “It’s not the government. It’s the civilians, the people who they come home to, who are going to help them. No one else.”

This is the third production of the company’s first play, following a successful debut at the LA Fringe Festival last year and a one-night performance at Golden West College in November. But Domenico has already heard enough to convince him it’s worth continuing.

“To have someone come up after the show and say, ‘Thank you. I think I’m finally ready to talk to my family,’” he says. “That already makes it all worth it.”

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