Bekah Brunstetter’s impressive off-Broadway debut, Oohrah!, is not what it appears to be. Slyly cloaked as a cautionary tale about the lingering effects of war, the play is hardly another shell-shocked depiction of former soldiers struggling to adapt to civilian life. In fact, it is something entirely more cynical, a portrait of one family’s eternal discontent in the Bible Belt community of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Smothered by the ominous shadow of nearby Fort Bragg, the residents here are trapped — by duty, by marriage, by circumstance. To convey this, Brunstetter paints a humorous but ultimately dreary world in which people never get what they really want, no matter how badly they want it.
This pervasive theme of dissatisfaction is evident the moment career soldier Ron returns home from his final tour of duty in Iraq. He is greeted by his Martha Stewart-quoting wife, Sara, who seems painfully eager to salvage the cozy life that was interrupted by Ron’s military service. Ron claims to be equally excited about living a quieter existence and spending more quality time with Sara and their teenage daughter, Lacey, a sassy tomboy who prefers guns to dresses. However, the minute Ron and Sara are alone, they begin to squabble over the details of their future lives together, and we soon realize that the pull of Army life will not be so easy for Ron to give up.
Sara’s sister, Abby, wants a manly military husband of her own, but instead she has agreed to marry Christopher, a videogame-playing baggage screener who can’t light a grill without singeing himself. Abby’s engagement doesn’t stop her from flirting with a fresh-faced Marine named Chip (Maximilian Osinski) and inviting him home for dinner. But when Chip latches onto Ron and the family like a lost puppy, his shifty presence pushes their collective unhappiness to the surface.
Brunstetter is an off-Broadway newcomer to watch, with a focused dramatic voice and a knack for creating genuine characters. As a heartbreaking peek into one family’s microcosm of dying dreams, Oohrah! is nearly flawless, mixing the right amount of humor, hopelessness and raw storytelling to keep us invested from start to finish. Brunstetter is on shakier ground when she lets her characters delve into political territory: Ron suggests to the blindly patriotic Chip that we selfish Americans may actually deserve another terrorist attack, and his assertion sends the youngster into a fit of rage. Having built his life around rigid military dictums, Chip is unwilling to accept that the U.S. has long overstayed its welcome in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though these thorny issues anchor the story, we’ve heard them all before, and Brunstetter really brings nothing new to the argument. As such, Oohrah! loses its teeth when it needs them the most.
The outstanding ensemble gives the show a nice shot in the arm, bringing Brunstetter’s attentive and entertaining dialogue to brilliant life. As the story’s central sisters, Jennifer Mudge and Cassie Beck trade sibling banter that is so organic, we might believe the two actually grew up together. Darren Goldstein is appropriately meat-headed as Ron, but he doesn’t neglect to give the character a heart. Lucas Near-Verbrugghe scores much-deserved laughs as the hilariously clueless Christopher, with a hybrid Southern-surfer drawl that evokes images of Jeff Spicoli posing as a NASCAR dad. The charming young actress Sami Gayle is loaded with devilish spunk as Lacey, stealing scenes from the adult actors with all the fearlessness of a teenage pit bull.
Oohrah! is a funny, compelling and sometimes-misanthropic rumination on the sadness of unrealized desires, a remarkable effort by a promising young playwright. Brunstetter leaves very little resolved as her story reaches its anticlimactic end, and ultimately we’re left feeling a little empty. It’s a fitting conclusion, though, for this sullen tale in which desires go unfulfilled. We leave the theater wanting to see more, but then why should we get everything we want?
Originally published in Show Business Weekly, 2009