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From Iraq to a stage near you
Savannah Actor’s Theatre presents dark comedy <i>Pvt. Wars</i>
Direct Matthew Charles, a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves

The director of the latest offering at the Savannah Actor’s Theatre has unique insight into the production.

Pvt. Wars is about combat veterans. Matthew Charles is a sergeant with the 2nd Battalion 2nd Marines and has completed one tour of duty in Iraq, serving in Fallujah from July 2005 to February 2006.

Charles is directing Pvt. Wars, which is set in a veterans hospital. “The play was written in 1976,” he says. “It’s about three Vietnam veterans, all of whom are dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s a very dark comedy, considering the subject matter.”

Charles has been doing research on the playwright, James McLure, to see if McLure served in Vietnam. “All of his works that I’ve read deal with PTSD,” he says.

That includes Lone Star, a one-act comedy set in Texas. “There is a vet who has come back from Vietnam, but isn’t the same man he was,” Charles says.

But of all McLure’s characters, the three in Pvt. Wars seem the most hopeless. “One character was living with his sister and had a job,” Charles says. “He went crazy and attacked his fellow workers with a tire tool.”

Charles is very sympathetic to the characters. “They came home to riots and being called baby killers,” he says. “My experience was totally different. “I had a couple of people say, ‘The war is wrong, you’re just killing people,’ but I had great family, great friends.”

Even with support, coming home from war is hard for many veterans. “I had an easy transition,” Charles says. “But everyone has some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I recall getting angry at really nothing, inconsequential things.

“You’re expected to come home and do what everyone else did while you were gone,” he says. “But the world doesn’t wait.”

Turmoil can pass from the veteran to those around him. Charles estimates that 60 percent of his comrades in arms who were married when they went into combat are now divorced.

Originally from Cleveland, Charles has lived in Princeton, N.J. and Memphis and currently calls Dallas, Texas his home. He earned a degree in theater arts from Sewanee, University of the South.

As graduation neared, Charles had four job offers from theaters throughout the country. “The week I graduated, they all contacted me and said their NEA funding had been cut so they couldn’t afford me,” he says.

So Charles signed up with the Marine Corps Reserves. Most new recruits have stars in their eyes, and he was no different.

“You go off and think you’re going to do tremendous, wonderful things,” Charles says. “Meanwhile, you have a family back home thinking you’re getting into firefights every day.”

At the time he joined the Marines, the training was somewhat antiquated. “I went to boot camp before 9/11,” Charles says.

His unit was being trained to fight in Vietnam, not Iraq. The two wars are totally different, he says.

Charles doesn’t support the withdrawal of the troops. “If we pull out now, it will result in a bloodbath that will probably spill over to the rest of the Middle East,” he says. “It would also validate terrorist tactics.”

Charles had expected to return to Iraq and had reenlisted in May. “I was slated to be the platoon sergeant,” he says. “We had a change of command and they pulled all the veterans off the roster.”

Disappointed about this decision, Charles worries that his unit doesn’t have enough veterans to guide it. “I reenlisted to take those Marines back over there,” he says. But Charles still faces the real possibility that he will return to Iraq sometime over the next year. His official job is radio operator/radio chief.

There have been other changes since Charles went to war. He’s lost faith in much of the national news media.

“There was a bad hit on our sister battalion,” he says. “The news didn’t have a single fact right. The reporter was reporting live from Baghdad, which is 60 miles away. That’s a whole different world. They’re getting their news secondhand and passing it on.”

The final blow came when a major story was dropped because Paris Hilton was sent back to jail.

Charles came to Savannah to direct Pvt. Wars at the request of Sasha McCurdy, artistic director at the Savannah Actor’s Theatre. “I met Sasha when I was going to school,” he says. “She’s been talking to be about directing a play.”

The play was chosen in part because Charles is so familiar with it. “I acted in Pvt. Wars twice,” he says. “I’ve played two of the three roles.”

His own experience in war has helped Charles direct the play. “I’ve been in combat,” he says. “This is the kind of situation the characters came from.”

Ironically, the playwright at no point tells the audience that these are indeed Vietnam veterans. “I don’t think Vietnam is ever mentioned in the script,” Charles says.

“Based on clues in the text, we assume that’s what it is.”

The play is set after the war has ended. “The war is over and the troops have pulled out,” Charles says. “The rest of the country has moved on, but these three guys can’t.”

The cast is comprised of Chris Eady as Gately, McLean Smith as Silvio and Jeff Fuell as Matwick. They have had just two and a half weeks to rehearse. “All things considered, it’s working out very well,” Charles says.

Although he hopes to do lighting tech and design back in Dallas, Charles plans to move into film as a writer and director. He also plans to go back to grad school.

“I’m working on my own screenplay about my experiences,” Charles says. “It’s not like Hollywood combat is. The biggest problem is getting through the boredom. Jarhead did a good job (of showing that).”

In the meantime, he’s visiting Savannah and directing a play.

“I’m not trying to make any kind of political statement with this,” Charles says. “It’s more about people than war.”

Pvt. Wars will be presented Sept. 6, 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15 at 8 p.m. at the Savannah Actor’s Theatre, 703D Louisville Rd. Tickets are $10. For tickets, call 525-5050. Call 232-6080 or