In 2005, Margo Lee Sherman first learned about Captain Terrance Wright, who returned from Iraq and couldn’t stop hiccupping. Shuttled back and forth from one military hospital to another, he was eventually discovered dead in a Fayetteville motel room, the victim of what the army called an “unknown illness.” Reading the story in a printout from the online military digest G.I. Special, “I just got shivers,” Sherman says. “It was like his body was finding a way . . . you can see why I was so taken with it.”
So taken with it, in fact, that the 62-year-old playwright and actress ended up performing the narrative of Wright’s last months, together with first-person reminiscences from other soldiers, on the stage of Manhattan’s Theater for the New City. Her one-woman show, called What Do I Know About War?, attracted the attention of a New York Times critic, who wrote, “The experience . . . is like eavesdropping on a small, sorrowful town.”
Next weekend Sherman is bringing her show to Vermont — a homecoming of sorts. A founding member of Bread and Puppet Theater, she lived here from 1971 to 1974. After her return to New York, Sherman often came up in the summers to “hang out with my beloved friends in Plainfield, because we were so close when we were in our twenties,” she says in a phone interview.
Since those days, Sherman has built a reputation for her solo work, including pioneering performances of Samuel Beckett in the Czech Republic. When she began to develop What Do I Know About War?, she test-drove a scene at the Bread and Puppet Farm in Glover. “People were really devastated,” she recalls. “That propelled me to get more material.”
Sherman originally planned to tour the revamped play last October, but an accident in the theater landed her in the hospital. Friends in Brattleboro and Montpelier encouraged her to return to Vermont, where she’ll give three performances before moving on to Maine for two more. The Montpelier show is co-sponsored by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Peace Vermont and the American Friends Service Committee.
What Do I Know About War? joins other recent, acclaimed efforts by artists to present the war through soldiers’ eyes. “With a few little shifts of a word here and there, it is the real words of real people,” Sherman says. “You get a lot of different viewpoints. I think that’s why people like it, even people who are not peaceniks.”
Was it difficult to channel people who lived through such extremities — or didn’t live through them? “Very difficult. My technique is called banging your head against the wall,” Sherman quips. Judging by the play’s reception, though, it works.