Reports and concerns about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resurface whenever the United States hosts returning soldiers from a war zone. Veterans afflicted with this condition, first described as shell shock (and war neurosis) during World War I, struggle with suicidal and homicidal impulses, alcohol and drug problems, disrupted sleep, intrusive thoughts and images, and other symptoms that put stress on their relationships and render even ordinary activities difficult if not impossible to perform.
In the intimate setting of The Drilling Company , a small off-off Broadway venue that provides an arena for quality productions not yet commercially viable, theater once again afforded a vehicle for exploring the impact of war on its survivors. Joining a long tradition dating back at least to the ancient Greeks (over 2,000 years ago), Eric Henry Sanders  shined the klieg lights on a contemporary American war in his drama, Reservoir, a compact play requiring little in the way of staging and props, and able to dramatize its story with just a handful of characters.
The development of PTSD follows “…exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate…”1
Further, “…the person’s response to the event must involve intense fear, helplessness, or horror…”2
And, “[t]he disorder may be especially severe or long lasting when the stressor is of human design.”3
In Sanders’s play, Frank Hasek (convincingly portrayed by Alessandro Colla) has recently returned from a first and long deployment in an unspecified theater of operations and can’t stop twitching and checking around corners for hidden threats. Andre (masterfully interpreted by Nathan Ramos), his buddy on the job at the vehicle repair shop on the military base, keeps his symptoms at bay through the wonders of modern chemistry and music piped into his ears.
Marisa, the mother of Hasek’s infant son, pleads, cajoles and finally takes it upon herself to set up an appointment for her oddly behaving partner to see a doctor at the Veterans Administration. Afforded a mere 15 minutes by an overwhelmed system, Hasek lucks out, finding himself in session with a more than understanding psychiatrist (finely acted by Karla Hendrik). Eventually he gets to tell his story, though that alone cannot cure his malady.
Ordered to participate in activities that result in the taking of innocent life, the knowledge that Hasek acquires about the behavior of ordinary people in life-threatening situations continues to haunt him long after he has left the scene. In writing the play, did Sanders have information about real events on the ground in what sounded like Baghdad?
Answering that and other questions in an interview,4 the playwright described doing research for the script by speaking with veterans, including one from the current war in Iraq and another from the historical one in Vietnam. The knowledge he gained from those conversations broadened his understanding of soldiers. He learned about the gruesome reality of life in a combat zone and that most young men enlist for economic reasons.
Originally basing the character of the emotionally wounded soldier on Woyzeck in the eponymous 1837 play by Georg Büchner and additionally inspired by contemporary interpretations of Greek battle tragedies,5 Sanders created Hasek as an amalgam of impressions gathered from his various sources. While the details might reflect actual conditions, the playwright deliberately avoided linking the events in his play to any specific soldier’s experience.
A self-described news junky,6 Sanders had noticed the similarity between the plight of Woyzeck and that of returning soldiers from Afghanistan, including reports of several who had murdered their spouses.7 Drawn to know more and apparently needing to share his newly acquired awareness, the playwright developed Reservoir which, despite numerous revisions, remained essentially the same as originally conceived.
Later in the play, when Marisa keeps her own appointment with Hasek’s psychiatrist, the doctor assures her, “It’s possible he can be the same person again.” But unfolding events onstage put the lie to that assertion and place audience members in the uncomfortable position of helpless bystanders as the ghosts that inhabit Hasek’s mind and control his life prevail, leading to even more bloodshed. Viewers, slow to leave at the play’s conclusion, must then grapple with their own vicarious traumatization.
1 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. American Psychiatric Association, 1994, 424.
4 Interview with Eric Henry Sanders, January 14, 2011.
5 Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America, 2002, and Bob Meagher, Herakles Gone Mad, 2006.
6 Op cit.
7 Massachusetts Cultural Council, Three Stages , interview with Eric Henry Sanders, June 4, 2010.