Monica Yant Kinney: An updated 'Macbeth' captures veterans' toil and trouble

Bob Whitney, a VA psychologist, talks to theater students at West Chester University. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer.
Bob Whitney, a VA psychologist, talks to theater students at West Chester University. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer. (Bob Whitney,)
Posted: March 25, 2012

Of the 40-student cast and crew, nearly half have a friend or family member in the military. So if ever there was a time and place to reimagine Shakespeare's Macbeth as a tragedy of modern war, it's now, at West Chester University.

Macbeth himself (Philadelphia senior Jim Vadala) just spent spring break reconnecting with buddies back with their own war stories to share. Shannon Kearns, a junior Gentlewoman, rushes to the computer to check on a deployed pal from the Poconos whenever she hears of a skirmish in Afghanistan.

Horsham's Ian Vosseler wonders how a friend could call to chat after a deadly roadside bombing.

"I looked down at my phone," recalled Vosseler, a senior who plays a Nobleman, "and saw this long weird number with letters."

In the play, Macbeth transforms from soldier to murderer in a brutal quest to gain and secure power.

To contemporize a classic, the students sought an expert to help them emote. So last week, before rehearsal, Coatesville VA psychologist Bob Whitney took a theater full of bright young people into the darkness he sees in his patients.

Witches, wine, warriors

Whitney runs a 34-bed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) unit that treated 138 people last year, half of them young veterans tormented by tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other VA programs comfort suffering spouses and caregivers.

On a stage strewn with empty wine and pill bottles to illustrate Macbeth's descent, the psychologist invents a composite soldier who blames himself for ducking for cover as his buddy takes fatal fire.

"In three seconds," Whitney explains, "his whole life changed."

Whitney says some PTSD sufferers can't drive, go to a crowded mall, or play video games. Others see wives as a new enemy to fight and alcohol as a means to drown bitter memories.

A traumatic reexperience, he says, "could be triggered by diesel fuel at a truck stop."

No one brings up Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, facing 17 murder counts for a rampage against Afghan civilians, but the psychologist notes that the VA works with PTSD sufferers who have been charged with crimes.

Yet when a cast member asks if Macbeth's regicide is justified, Whitney shakes his head.

"It's a little different when you're murdering for ambition."

War is personal

Director Harvey Rovine, chair of West Chester's theater department, credits his students for inspiring the thoroughly modern Macbeth, a sold-out run this week with performances benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project (http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/).

"We're not making a political statement," he assures. "We're asking: What are the challenges facing a soldier who's been deployed and deployed and deployed? We're trying to find contemporary reasons for all the things these characters do, many of which are horrendous."

The play normally begins with Macbeth and Banquo receiving prophesies as they return from war, but Rovine took a dramatic departure.

"I have Banquo dying of a battle wound in Macbeth's arms in the first scene," Rovine reveals. "The rest of the play, he's a ghost haunting Macbeth."

The witches who set Macbeth's treachery into motion become lifelike apparitions when he's high and drunk. Other characters - wives, children - are also defined primarily by the devastation of separation from the warriors they love.

In the front row, Lady Macbeth taps her green flip-flop on the floor as she takes notes. Senior Abby Foster served in the Navy before enrolling at West Chester, but still seeks motivation for her leading lady's madness.

"Does PTSD bring out other disorders, like sleepwalking?" the Downingtown student asks hopefully.

Whitney wishes it were that easy.

"Shakespeare," he reminds, "didn't get it all right."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney

at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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