Ready for his second draft

With 'ReEntry,' veteran Joseph Harrell returns to military life, but this time on stage

  • Joe Harrell, a former Marine, rehearses scenes from the upcoming Center Stage production of "ReEntry."
Joe Harrell, a former Marine, rehearses scenes from the upcoming… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
November 06, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The guy on stage standing at parade rest, the guy with the buzz cut and the shoulders thrusting out about halfway to the wings looks pretty much like what he is, which is a man on a quest.

Sgt. Joseph Harrell is a former Marine turned military consultant turned actor. Despite his lack of performing credentials, Harrell was so charismatic that he was cast to portray one of the three major characters in "ReEntry," a play about the difficulties faced by military veterans making the transition from the battle front to the home front.

The play by Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez is based on interviews with more than 100 servicemen and members of their families. Previews begin Wednesday at Center Stage.

"Working on 'ReEntry' is without a doubt the best thing that ever happened to me," Harrell says. "It has changed me as a human being."

His resume includes stints as a male stripper, a personal trainer and a model for muscle magazines. Add "Marine" and "professional actor," and the resulting career path can seem a tangle. But talk to Harrell for any length of time, and a consistent theme starts to emerge:

Through rigorous discipline and self-control, he hopes to make himself fit for a higher purpose. He is determined to become the best Joseph Harrell he can be, and that starts with a superbly conditioned body. Deeply protective of the people under his charge, he throws himself into helping others improve themselves.

"Everything I do is about trying to add layers to people," he says. "My passion is communication. When I was a drill instructor, I tried to make better Marines. As an actor, I try to give the audience a story they can think about the next day. If I can teach, I have to teach."

Harrell has been involved with "ReEntry" for more than two years, and he says that the experience forced him to recognize and deal with his post-traumatic stress syndrome. As he confronted his psychic wounds, he became better able to control his self-destructive, hair-trigger temper.

"I'd been suffering from PTSD all my life, and I didn't even realize it," Harrell says. "This show has been a wonderful healing process."

"ReEntry" seems to have been therapeutic for a lot of people. For instance, both of the show's creators come from military families.

Ackerman has two brothers who have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq; they are portrayed in the show as "Charlie" and "John." Five of Sanchez's brothers are veterans, including two who served in the Vietnam War. "ReEntry" is an attempt to understand their struggles.

Audiences meet a high-ranking military officer who describes a decision made during combat to pass by a mother who stood by the side of the road and begged for help for her dying child. They are introduced to a soldier who feels profoundly uncomfortable when well-meaning civilians thank him for his wartime service. They get to know a soldier who returned to the U.S. and found himself barely able to control his rage during a confrontation with a 13-year-old skateboarder.

Though "ReEntry" has been staged twice previously — in a theater in New Jersey and off-Broadway — the cast and creators consider the Center Stage run to be their first major production. The script was rewritten after the world premiere, and the two previous stagings took place in theaters seating fewer than 100 customers.

"This production is the pinnacle for us," says Sanchez, who also is directing the show. "This is the first time 'ReEntry' will be performed before a large, general-interest audience. Center Stage also is doing a lot of outreach. For instance, they're holding post-show discussions after each performance. 'ReEntry' is getting a frame and a context it never had before."

The audience for the play will soon broaden even more. Ackerman and Sanchez have just received a grant to take "ReEntry" on tour next year to regional theaters throughout the U.S. In addition, they've been performing a one-hour "concert version" on military bases and at veterans hospitals, including at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.

"After each performance, the actors usually come out and chat with the audience," Sanchez says. "I looked over one day and saw a line in front of each performer made up of veterans and their families waiting to tell their own stories."

If Harrell rarely shares his own tale, that's understandable; his childhood was damaging in the extreme. Suffice to say that his parents divorced when he was young, and he was bounced around more than a dozen cities along the East Coast, all of which he can still name. He grew up with a bedrock belief that the world was a dangerous place and that he had only himself to rely on.

He dropped out of high school during his senior year after answering an advertisement seeking an exotic dancer, dazzled by the promise of easy money.

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