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by Catey Sullivan

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Playwright: Aline Lathrop

At: 16th Street Theatre, 6420 16th St., Berwyn. Ticket: $22; .Runs through: Aug. 18

There's no lack of plays exploring the fallout of war—particularly that on veterans haunted by PTSD. With The Hero's Wife, playwright Aline Lathrop tells one such story with brutal impact.

The 85-minute two-hander forces the audience to contemplate the price of heroism, and the intersection of heroism and barbarity. Regarding the story of Cam and Karyssa, Lathrop also asks the audience to ponder the culpability of war heroes who return home only to put their loved ones in peril.

When he is awake, former Navy SEAL Cam ( Aaron Christensen ) is deeply in love with Karyssa ( Alex Fisher ). Their passion borders on obsession, their mutual devotion shrouding the air like a thick fog that almost chokes out the outside world. But as Cam's increasingly disturbing nightmares make clear, something poisonous is slithering through this love story. Cam isn't the same man he was before deploying for special ops duty in Iraq. The plot centers on Karyssa's struggle to understand ( and survive ) the changes in the man she loves.

Directed by Ann Filmer and Miguel Nunez, the tension on stage tightens like a vise as each scene flows to the next. That tension is amplified exponentially by the breathtaking intimacy and violence design ( by Victor Bayona and Rick Gilbert, of R&D Choreography ). At one point, Cam twines himself around Karyssa's limbs to create an impossibly intricate yoga pose. Fisher and Christensen make it look effortless, while also radiating that love that inextricably binds them. That kind of sublime closeness makes the violent side side of their relationship all the more vivid. When Cam puts Karyssa in a chokehold and delivers a closed-fist punch to the face, it's realistic enough to make you gasp.

Christensen and Fisher make it clear that there's denial and fear on both sides. When in the throes of a nightmare, Cam screams in Arabic. He beats Karyssa until her skin is livid with sunsets of bruises. He remembers nothing in the morning. Or does he? When Karyssa confronts Cam with a partial recounting ( she leaves out the beatings ) of what transpires in his sleep, he's not entirely surprised.There are things, he says ominously, that she must never see or hear. She must leave the room during his nightmares. If he ever harms her, she must shoot him.

Christensen makes Cam's vulnerability and destructive machismo readily apparent. The only thing that excites him more than Karyssa is popping off automatic rounds in a forest preserve and destroying entire civilizations in video games. He sees PTSD as a disease of the weak and therapy a tool for fools.

As Karyssa, Fisher is believably in love and in denial. She's certain she can handle Cam on her own, going so far as learn Arabic so she can ask him questions while the nightmares have hold. That's the weak part of the plot—it's tough to imagine someone as smart, tough and loving as Karyssa would jeopardize her life for months. Her repeated attempts to confront Cam alone, in the wee hours of the night, never seem entirely plausible. Sure, she urges him to go to therapy. But when he resists, she doesn't insist. As written, Karyssa seems more likely to move out than she is to take on Cam's violence all by herself.

That aside, The Hero's Wife is directed to skin-prickling impact. It's fascinating and frightening and difficult to turn away from, even when you realize that Cam and Karyssa are hurtling toward a potentially violent end that neither is equipped to stop.

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