For a play that got its start in Maine and first drew national attention at Stage Left Chicago, the Colorado Springs opening of Make Sure It's Me feels a lot like coming home: The playwright, Kate Wenner, did much of her research for it at Fort Carson.
"It was the first place I really sat down and listened for many hours to service members telling me what it was like to be coping with not being able to think straight," she says, "and listen to wives telling me what it was like to live with someone who was so very different from who they had married, who went off to war."
Talking with the families of Fort Carson soldiers was a transformative experience for Wenner, one that spurred the former 20/20 producer to visit military bases and Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country. In the months leading up to her award-winning 2009 debut at the Penobscot Theatre in Bangor, Maine — where Scott RC Levy, now the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company's theater director, was creative director — Wenner interviewed doctors, veterans, wives and mothers dealing with traumatic brain injury.
Then a new and frightening phenomenon among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's often caused by shock waves from IED blasts that result in widespread brain damage.
Incidentally, Wenner realized, if those soldiers are dealing with memory loss, we are, too — in a different way.
"So often we just read about things," she says, "and then the next day we forget about them."
Like her characters, Wenner sees America struggling to remember the pieces of the wars and of soldiers' lives that collectively have been forgotten. Rather than a documentary format, Make Sure It's Me uses composite characters to chart the development of TBI awareness and treatment, often speaking verbatim in the words of the soldiers, spouses and mothers Wenner interviewed. It focuses on the frustration of soldiers who want to get back to life as normal, and the families who realize that the person who came home just isn't the same.
Of the rest of us, she says, "The tendency is just to walk away or judge them: 'Oh, that person's crazy, whatever.' But if you've ... actually watched and experienced what these people go through daily, how hard it is for them to remember, how hard it is for them to communicate, you might recognize that person in line behind you at the supermarket, and say, 'Wait a minute, rather than pass judgment, I might want to ask.'"
In the more intimate setting of the FAC's 108-seat Music Room, the venue for Make Sure It's Me and the rest of the Second Stage season, audience members will get the chance to do just that: ask. It's a workshop performance, meaning they can engage in "talkbacks" with the playwright as well as the cast and, on Sept. 14, even some of Wenner's interview subjects.
For Wenner, the Sept. 13 opening represents the first time her play will appear before such a military-influenced community.
"It's going to be a tough audience, because they know a lot more than I know," she says. "But that's good. You want to have that authenticity."