Ask a college student where they spent their 21st birthday.
You’d probably expect them to name various local bars. You might not be prepared to hear “Iraq.”
That’s the reality for Suffolk theatre major Jim Mihelidakis – whose 21st birthday was “just like any other day” during his 15-month Army deployment – and it shows how time in the service can create a gulf in experience and understanding between veterans and other students on campus.
The Suffolk University Theatre Department is hoping to help bridge that gulf with the new production, At Ease, a series of monologues conceived and directed by Professor Caitlin Langstaff.
“Having Jim in class was eye-opening for me,” Langstaff explains. “I could see his frustration, and how his priorities differed from other students. It really highlighted the fact that we’re all affected by war and veterans’ issues, and we need to open the lines of communication.”
To create At Ease, Langstaff matched seven veterans with seven actors. As the monologues developed, so did relationships between the actors and vets.
“When I was paired with [wounded Marine veteran] Ryan, I didn’t know we’d become such good friends,” says senior Jillian Couillard. “When we first met, I told him I would only shoot a gun in the event of a zombie apocalypse – I realize now how clueless that sounds, but I never thought I’d be capable of shooting an M4 with him at a shooting range!”
Junior Gabby Womack joined the production hoping to gain insight into her own brother and uncle, both veterans. She has “had trouble connecting with them because they don’t want to dwell on their deployments or even discuss these issues at all.”
Mihelidakis knows how hard it is to relive those experiences. He wrestles with the concept of “readjustment” and wonders if being a soldier is a lifelong part of his identity.
“When you’re used to seeing signs every day in a war zone that say ‘Complacency Kills’ it’s impossible to not be changed by that, not to lose your ability to be carefree,” he says.
At Ease has been a cathartic experience for Mihelidakis, who has had trouble opening up about his experiences in Iraq. The “safe communication space” Langstaff fostered among the students is a major factor in this transformation. Student actor Jake Athyal agrees:
“We feel honored that they trust us to tell their stories, and we genuinely hope this is a positive step towards creating better understanding between vets and other students at Suffolk.”
The show runs at 8 pm Friday and Saturday, October 5-6 at Suffolk University's Modern Theatre. Tickets are $10 ($5 for Students, Seniors and Veterans) and benefit a scholarship for Suffolk students who are veterans of the United States military or descendants of veterans.