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Santa Monica

Survived: The War Cycle ~ Powerhouse Theater ~ Santa Monica

12:08 PM PDT on April 17, 2009


Survived ~ Through April 25th ~ Powerhouse Theater ~ 3116 2nd St. Santa Monica, CA 90405

Story by Rebecca Finer

SURVIVED: The War Cycle, Written by Tom Burmester, Directed by Tom Burmester and Danika Sudik.

Survived is the follow up to The Los Angeles Theater Ensemble’s “Wounded,” The first of the War Cycle series.

Survived begins and ends with the same line, spoken by the military personnel assigned to deliver a report of death to families. “We are like the angels of death,” they say. Before they break the tragic news, the family still believes their child alive, though somewhere distant. They have hope and a future together. Once the blow crushes them, their plans and dreams are gone forever.

I am typically skeptical of contemporary plays performed in small theaters. Survived is the second installment in The War Cycle, a series about the effects our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are having on the lives of U.S. citizens. I was pleasantly surprised to find how much the production, in all of its elements, offers beyond my expectations.

The theater was tiny and we walked by it twice. Tapping our feet in assigned seats E5 and E6, the swelling background music immediately struck my ears, forcing visions into my head of a not so distant personal, and admittedly, slightly “emo” past. Numbers like “Citizen Soldier,” by 3 Doors Down gave the atmosphere a contemporary setting, adding to the anticipation as the audience waited for the players to play.


“Survived” follows one family, The Harpers, as they plan a memorial service to honor the death of their son, brother, and husband, Michael, who died one year ago in the Iraq occupation. An unexpected visitor shows up in the proceedings, stirring long dormant conflicts within the family. Every member of the fallen warrior’s family: his father Sam (James W. Sudik), his mother Lillith (Dee Amerio Sudik), his sister Dina (Jen Bailey), his brother Ariel (Michael Pappas), and his widow Sophie (Melissa Collins), is affected by grief, and deals with the pain in unique, personal ways. Sofie’s anguish leads her into the arms of another man, Raphael (Albert Meijer). Whether the family can handle the truth of what really happened to their boy, and survive the burden and pain are the play’s central questions.

Survived succeeds best when it feels contemporary, name-dropping everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Facebook. After a million WWII films and Vietnam plays, these current conflicts weigh heavily upon our generation’s shoulders, with the baggage rapidly stacking up. Having artwork to relate to and cry with is a must. The up-to-date references remind us the war we were denied access to on cable news is real and coming home every day.

A relatable and favorite reference was dropped shortly before intermission in a high-energy scene called “Status Change” that had the house laughing in sympathy or bemused nostalgia. “Status change” refers to one’s Facebook relationship status. Rafael asks Sofie if she will change her status on the site, then tries to compromise by saying she doesn’t have to have a relationship status at all. They fight and the tension rises to a degree that might make anyone in the audience who had previously been considering some sort of a relationship talk to reconsider. Oh Facebook, how many relationships will you ruin?

The set pieces for the show were grey with black, disconnected lines. These were moved and adjusted from scene to scene, with the lines never meeting. This subtle detail emphasizes how the lost life and previous loves and relationships no longer connect, forever altered and difficult to ignore, unfinished as the lives that were planned and trashed. Between scenes, a short clip of music played from various songs including “Wonderwall,” “Paint it Black,” “Hide and Seek,” and many more. Each music clip they used seemed to fit very well into the mood of what was going on in the play.

The relationship between the character of Sam and Lillith Harper was very real and believable as a grieving couple; their acting together flowed beautifully through a very powerful connection. Looking in the program, I saw the actors share the same last name and wonder if they are in reality husband and wife, which would certainly help a staged relationship come to life. Meijer’s embodiment of Raphael is absolutely phenomenal; portraying a sincere man who understands the comic books he sells completely, while failing to grasp the feelings of his lover.

Each of the characters in the show was written well, fitting naturally into and building the story. However Dina, or as I called her before I figured out her name, the tenth grader, was one exception. This character stuck out like a sore thumb as the only one who didn’t change at all during the course of the play. Dina seemed like maybe she was supposed to be comic relief, only she wasn’t funny. I don’t blame the actress; her lines didn’t give her much to work with. The father character, Sam, was my favorite; his portrayal of a grieving father flawlessly accurate. Playing opposite him, Lillith Harper performed a monologue alone on stage so descriptive I could see everything she was saying in my own mind. It was the day she found out her son died. I felt her pain, felt the moment when their whole lives change forever.

My original skepticism and preconceptions of this play were completely washed away. Survived is 100% successful in making the average person, who might not necessarily think about the lives and emotions of families affected by U.S. conflict, to really stop and feel it. The show moves the focus on the damage the war has done to families from next door into our own living rooms, making the pain our real pain and the loss feel identifiable.

Survived beautifully captures the unrelenting grief and transformation that the families of fallen soldiers in the “War on Terror” endure daily. Each family member is unrelentingly battered by the tragic changes in their lives when death takes a soldier, forever destined to be new people, living with new burdens. Plans now broken, the blueprints of their lives fragmented and unfinished. Survived is not the first or last theatrical artwork to document the losses U.S. families experienced in the Middle East, but it is one of the best and strongest I’ve seen to date.

Photos by Melissa Snyder

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