Coming Home: ‘The Hero’s Wife’ at Synchronicity Theatre

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Rebeca Robles and Joe Sykes in The Hero’s Wife. Photo by Jerry Siegal

A young wife joins the most important battle of all—the struggle to bring her husband home from war.

In a break from rehearsals, Joe Sykes answers questions about a startling new play, premiering in Atlanta and Chicago.

Once again Synchronicity Theatre is producing “smart, gutsy and bold theatre” that’s bound to spark conversations.

The Hero’s Wife by Aline Lathrop is the intimate story of the violent and heart-breaking effects of war and PTSD, told from a wife’s point of view. Directed by Rachel May, it’s presented by Synchronicity of Atlanta in a Joint World Premiere with 16th Street Theater, Chicago. The Synchronicity production runs April 12—May 5, with a preview on April 11th.

The Chicago Tribune calls the play, “A lacerating and relevant portrait of how hard it can be for two people to find their way home to each other in the wake of the living nightmare of war.”

In the Atlanta production, Joe Sykes stars with Rebeca Robles. The story begins just after Cameron (Sykes), a Navy SEAL, has returned from his last deployment. Karyssa (Robles), his very young wife, struggles to help Cam rebuild his life. But his secrets and violent night terrors threaten both Karyssa and their fragile life together.

In this interview, Joe talks about his work on the play and what it means to help tell this story now.

Q: The Hero’s Wife is a two-person play that focuses on a wife’s experience with her husband’s PTSD. Does this layering of perspective make your job tougher?

Joe: No, not really. I support Rebeca by being a strong scene partner. More than that, I make her situation real for the audience by fully realizing Cam as a complex and damaged guy. Writers will tell you: if you want to flesh out your protagonist, beef up the villain or the forces working against her. Now, I’m not a villain here, although, at times, I do some pretty scary things. But Cam’s problems are crushing. He’s a larger-than-life guy and how he behaves and thinks and feels creates huge challenges for both of them.

Q: As Cam, you are required to be sweet and threatening, closed off and explosive, a victim and a protector. You must be sensual and aloof, an expert at survival and a novice at intimacy. A frightening man who is somehow lovable. How do you create a character who has such divergent characteristics?

Joe: This question comes up a lot. Not just in this play. There’s a technical answer and a more human answer. When I’m coaching students, I explain that characters often have conflicting emotions.  The technical answer is that you play one then the other. You work beat by beat—one emotional turn at a time.   As an actor you have to choose when those turns happen. Luckily, this is a well-written play so I don’t have to choose, I just have to read the script.

That said, it’s not like switching one emotion off and another one on. That would like putting a strobe light on stage. Pretty jarring. What has to come with it is an understanding of character.  That understanding or appreciation for who the character is creates continuity—a sense that you’re looking at a whole human being.

And Cam is an incredibly complex and rich character. It’s hard to say I’ve “enjoyed” getting to know the guy, but he’s added so much to my understanding of what it means for a person to go to war and then to try to enter ordinary life again.

In my own life, researching Cam has led me into some revealing conversations. I’m not a veteran but I asked a friend of mine who is to read the play. He was struck by how true to life Cam is—how true the couple’s whole situation is. Our director, Rachael May, has forged a lot of connections with the military community around Atlanta.

One of our community sponsors is United Military Care, a group that supports military families and veterans when they return home. We’ll be having special nights and “talk backs” for families and veterans. As an actor, it’s my personal mission to allow an audience to feel like they’re not alone when they watch my stuff. That’s what’s happening here.

At the same time, it’s really important for non-military folks to open a window to the world of returning soldiers and their families. This play is going to spark so much conversation—difficult but much needed conversation.

Q: So who is Cam? What’s he like?

Joe: He’s a Navy SEAL who’s spent his 20-year career in war zones. He knows sharp shooting, how to jump out of planes. He can survive alone in the desert. He’s killed people in multiple ways; he’s survived torture and he’s watched close friends die. He’s been super human and less than human. In war, oddly enough, he’s in this bubble of security because he knows how to operate there. He can trust everyone else to do their job because they’ve all shared the same training and the same experiences.

But when he returns home, he’s suddenly at a loss. He doesn’t have a skill set for life at home. He doesn’t want to go to a bar with his wife because he can’t tolerate open spaces. He feels exposed in a way he never would have allowed himself to be in a war zone. When he comes home, his self-esteem goes down the tubes because nobody has any use for his particular skill set. He’s a guy whose self worth was all about being an elite warrior and doing the job but now the job is on the other side of the globe and he can’t even talk with the people around him. Meanwhile, he’s convinced—to his core—that the enemy he fought just a few weeks ago could come crashing through his apartment door at any moment.

The only person who has meaning for him is his wife, Karyssa. She’s a yoga instructor, much younger than him. They married fast and spent just eight weeks together before he left for his last deployment. But he thinks she’s perfect. In a lot of ways, he puts her on a pedestal. He would never ever want to hurt her. But his night terrors are so violent, he could maim or kill her. And how Karyssa chooses to handle the situation shapes the story.

Q: This play includes explosive violence and intense sex. Are those elements difficult to stage?

Joe: Both the violence and the sex are essential parts of Cam and Karyssa’s story. Some events happen off stage. A lot happen on stage. In portraying them, we want to be authentic but we also want to respect personal boundaries. We’re using both a fight choreographer and an intimacy choreographer. Most folks know what a fight choreographer is but an intimacy choreographer is fairly new. Same idea. There should be no surprises. No one should feel threatened or coerced.  No one’s personal ordeal should be exploited for the sake of a scene. They should know every move that’s coming and feel in control. Everyone should feel safe physically and emotionally. We started with small consent exercises: Is it ok to touch a shoulder, an elbow? We moved on from there.  This type of work has been missing from theater productions and I think we’re all happy that it’s now part of the process.

You know, we use the word intimacy here. For Cam and Karyssa, the sex is fantastic but other forms of intimacy are so hard, especially for Cam. He doesn’t know how to talk with her when they’re in the same room together. When he was deployed, they got to know each other by Skyping. He was in the dessert, in combat; he lost friends, spent days on patrol in morally ambiguous and mind f-ing situations and the one beautiful spot in his life was the minutes he’d talk with Karyssa. So when he comes home and he’s with his wife in the same room, he just doesn’t know how to open up or even how to begin to share his thoughts with her. He asks Karyssa, who’s 3 feet away from him, if they can Skype.

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Joe Sykes and Rebeca Robles in The Hero’s Wife. Photo by Jerry Siegel

Q: Is this a tough play for audiences?  

Joe: It presents a heartbreaking situation. But it’s not a one-note play. The writing is really beautiful. There’s sweetness and humor here. Granted some of it is pretty dark humor. Cal’s military mindset lends itself to dark humor. But it works. I love delivering a funny line in a tense situation. It’s so much fun. And breaking the tension, letting the audience breathe, helps them stay with the story. And in a lot of ways, it’s a hopeful story. Karyssa stays with it. She’s not going to leave him behind.

Q: What about playing a Navy SEAL? Any pressure to bulk up?

Joe: Oh, yeah, totally. I’ve upped the kickboxing. And I’m working with two trainers, Bollo, who’s a piece of granite, and Taz, who was absolutely gleeful when I told him what I was doing. He says, “Okay, Dude, you’re going to bench press that bar a thousand times.” I down the protein powder; I’ve already got the military haircut. It’s all good.