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This Is My Rifle, This Is My Gun

The Town of Plantation recently seems to have become a womb for young male violence, with the most recognized wickedness to come out of this pseudo-Fitzgerald West Egg lately being the alleged bashing of homeless men in January by baseball-bat-wielding teen Plantation lads. Bad, sad news all around.

But Plantation is also home to the Public Theatre of South Florida, which is completely unafraid to tap into such kinds of violence. The company, which recently presented the menacingly violent Barefoot Boy With Shoes On, somehow found a play that could trump it, with And Then She Moved the Furniture, the first production of Miami playwright Manny Diez's chilling tale of Army-base domestic abuse. Here, finally, is a fresh, post-9/11 stage drama about war that truly hits home.

Public Theatre's director, David Jay Bernstein, certainly seems to harbor a soft spot for the antiwar military-theatrical complex. Last year, he did up David Rabe's Streamers, about soldiers preparing for the Vietnam War. Now, his soldier is coming home from Afghanistan, and this soldier does not want to be fucked with.

Diez's graphic play is a fictional telling of a true story coming out of Fort Bragg in the summer of 2002. In the heat of that North Carolina summer, four soldiers murdered their wives, and two of them then committed suicide. To top off the violence, an Army wife murdered her Special Forces husband. The resulting investigation pointed blame at histories of marital problems and stress from wartime separation, which leaves you wondering: What's up at Fort Bragg?

What's up, at least in the play, is that dysfunctional Special Forces sniper Todd Dawkins, played with unnervingly soft menace by Matt Stabile, is going on trial for bashing to death his wife, Trish (Nikki Fridh). His weapon of choice is not a sniper's rifle but the Plantation boy favorite — the baseball bat. Now, with blood on his hands, Todd must explain himself.

Through the play's juxtaposition of present and past, you learn all kinds of unsettling facts about life for soldiers coming home, as well as about life for soldiers' spouses. Most important, you learn about the sniper's "safe place," the den in his home, his sanctuary, which Army wives are warned not to remodel while their husbands are off to war or else face grave consequences.

Furniture is a concise and powerful play. As Todd, Stabile, in prison-orange jumpsuit or desert camo gear, with his shaved head and baby face, toggles between psychopathic precision killer and the prewar boy his wife found so endearing. Like Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, Todd is both innocent and insane. "When you have the target in your scope, it's a rush," this God-like killer gleams. Fridh is nothing less than brilliant as the warm, ill-starred wife. Despite our fully knowing the tragedy waiting at the play's end, Stabile and Fridh work through their awry connections to keep surprising us, especially in a brutally soft rape scene that, because of the pair's talent, will haunt you for a long time.

Last week, another play about war and home also opened in Fort Lauderdale — Rona Munro's 1991 Bold Girls, directed by Genie Croft at the Women's Theatre Project. In Bold Girls, however, the war isn't in a desert thousands of miles away. It takes place in the front yard.

Inside a drab Catholic house, with the tea kettle on and a bottle of gin firmly planted on the kitchen table, you hear gunfire coming from outside the front door. Gunfire also erupts out back. Burning buses and British soldiers are fouling up the streets — the kinds of things that might just keep three pent-up women from a girls' night out at the pub. Hmm, where could this drab house possibly be?

The Belfast of the early 1990s makes the Fort Bragg of 2002 look like Gymboree — there is no "safe place" in which to get abused for rearranging couches. Stalwart Marie's (Deanna Henson) entire house is dangerous, with each rap at the door threatening either raiding British soldiers or IRA members running from them. Marie, along with world-wise Nora (Kathy Ryan) and her wild daughter Cassie (Tanie Tesh), fight the odds as they raise kids and try to keep their chins up.

All three are war widows in different ways. Their husbands have either been killed in Northern Ireland's "Troubles" or have been arrested and thrown in "the Kesh." The women's resulting mundane lives of mothering are interspersed with bombs going off or rounds of alternatively sanctifying or excoriating their dead husbands. Even the rare relief of a night out is disrupted by a crazed, knife-wielding waif (Jennifer Gomez) with mischief in mind.

The Women's Theatre Project's production is a steady stream of lovely ensemble work, especially through contributions by Henson and Tesh, whose complementary forces of patience and restlessness thicken the air in the Belfast parlor. Each scene in Bold Girls is like a self-contained sphere full of poignant, funny, and dark interaction.

However, these spheres each sing roughly the same note — of sad resignation tinged with warmly humorous reflection — that results in hours of watch-checking repetition. Sure, the play's resolution is that there is no resolution when it comes to the entrapment of being a Catholic mother in Northern Ireland. But surgical removal of about 30 minutes of those spheres would still get you there.

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Dave Amber

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