Harm’s Way,Shem Bitterman’s new play, now receiving its world premiere at Circus Theatricals, centers on a father-daughter relationship that similarly defined Bitterman’s previous play at this venue, Man.Gov. It’sthe latest in a spate of dramas spun from the trauma of Iraq. The story opens on the image of an Army officer sitting at home cleaning an automatic pistol. Major Jonathan Fredericks (Jack Stehlin) is an investigator stationed at the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. His daughter, Bianca (Katie Lowes), is an emotionally fragile young woman suffering from an unnamed psychological disorder requiring medication — medication she never takes. From this unfolds a sincere and thoughtful two hours of self-analysis and hair tearing that mostly avoids editorializing, even as the fallout from a fictionalized military atrocity destroys several lives stateside.

Father and daughter live on base in a home hollowed by the cancer death of Mrs. Fredericks and the friendly-fire killing of son Charlie in Afghanistan. The major cuts a solemn and Solomon-like figure in his chair, almost preternaturally wise in his ability to divine exactly where Bianca is standing behind him. He feels similarly on top of a case he’s investigating that involves Private Nick Granville’s role in a massacre of Iraqi civilians. Nick (Ben Bowen) is among those hillbilly recruits who enlisted because they saw the Army as their only liberator from an oppressive life, and the creator of an order and discipline that they never knew at home, in much the same way the White House sees America’s mission in Iraq as a civilizing force. Now the Army’s preparing to make him an example — or a scapegoat.

The private is almost robotic in his gestures and verbal responses, most of which express a keen desire to return to combat. Instead, he meets Bianca, who’s known as the base nympho, and before you can say They Live by Night, the two are on the road thumbing rides to Montana. Major Fredericks doesn’t sit still, however, and begins calling nearby motels from a civilian coffeehouse. Unhappily for him, a reporter named Constance Durrell (Wendy Makkena), who’s digging into the massacre story, has been eavesdropping on his calls. She persuades Fredericks to team up with her to track down the fugitive lovers, in exchange for her getting the inside track on the massacre story. And as Nick and Bianca make their way to the distant sanctuary of a friend’s farm, the major and reporter get to know each other in a string of motel rooms and truck stop diners. Durrell’s career has been motivated by the sad fate of her homeless Vietnam vet dad, while Fredericks has night sweats from memories of his shattered family. (What awaits his daughter in Montana will do nothing to ease his regrets.)

On one level, Harm’s Way raises questions not only about America’s divided opinion on the Iraq War, but about the dissenters’ view of who ultimately bears responsibility for it — is it the individual soldier or “the system”? This production opens as the words from Buffy Saint-Marie’s 1964 song “Universal Soldier” fade out. The ballad, which became a peace anthem during the Vietnam War, squarely places liability on the individual — much like Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” from that same period. However, other contemporary protest tunes (“Fixin’ to Die Rag,” “Masters of War,” “Sky Pilot”) saw the real culprits as being institutions (Wall Street, the Pentagon, religion). Major Fredericks definitely takes the “Universal Soldier” view and blames Nick for the atrocity, not any governing elites who sent him in, whereas the major’s crusty superior, Colonel Davis (Eric Pierpoint), prefers to denounce “the politicians.”

Bitterman offers an interesting distinction of attitudes because Fredericks, who has never served in combat, is most like the rest of us: civilians who can’t understand the actions of soldiers under the stress of war. On the other hand, both Nick and his former sergeant, Sammy Havesford (Josh Allen), try, in their choked and inarticulate speech, to convey how morally misshapen grunts become when fired upon, the same way in which cops can become killing machines during “adrenalin dumps” when they experience violent encounters with crime suspects.

From Iraq to Chechnya, we are far more aware of atrocities committed by occupying armies than ever before, even though such civilian massacres have occurred since the start of warfare. Today, it seems as though no 18-year-old soldier can stop a school bus at a war-zone checkpoint without blowing off the heads of half the passengers. Does that mean we should never bother fighting any war at all? Bitterman quietly raises this dichotomy of responsibility, between individuals and superiors, and lets the viewer mull it over — anything else would become propaganda for one side or another. True, he gratuitously has Fredericks say, at the end, “This isn’t my country anymore,” but the truth is that it is Fredericks’ country. Forget “anymore” — it has always been the place that horrifies him by play’s end.

As thought provoking as Bitterman’s play promises to be, Harm’s Way doesn’t really stir things up. One submerged theme is the panic men have when they cannot control women. The major cannot stop Bianca from spreading her legs or fleeing the base, nor can he get Durrell to “obey” him in their motel room or during their final meeting. Likewise, Nick must struggle to get Bianca to move her body when they have sex and even to make her say she loves him. But there’s no acknowledgment of this explosive, if possibly unconscious, motif and so no payoff.

Nor do things always quite ring true. Fredericks is presented as a caring father, yet he leaves a loaded gun around the home he shares with a psychologically disturbed daughter who’s one degree removed from playing with little glass animals. He’s a trained investigator, yet is clueless until Bianca tells him that she’s been sleeping around with half the base’s enlisted men — and then he lets her off with a don’t-do-it-again admonition. He’s similarly sloppy and forgiving of her reading the secret files he brings home on the massacre case. Then there’s Fredericks’ improbable use of the coffeehouse as an ad hoc headquarters — Bitterman’s put him there, obviously, so he can be overheard by Durrell, who happens to be present, but this coincidence only stretches credulity even further.

Director Steve Zuckerman makes sure this production unfolds in a surprisingly leaden atmosphere. He has Stehlin act as though drained of life, which matches Rachel Myers’ monochrome-gray set of concretized walls and steel furniture — a celebration of Orwellian conformity that doesn’t match the war of opinions and personalities that sparks this play. Lowes nevertheless turns in an affecting performance as the sensuous innocent, Bianca, while Bowen is likeable as lovestruck and AWOL Nick. Allen is deliciously vile in his brief appearance as Sammy Havesford, Nick’s young sergeant from the massacre in Iraq, and the play needs more of his character’s malevolently carefree spirit, which is now only hinted at when he frenetically speaks to Nick of their time together in war.

The Iraq conflict is a subtler, more difficult war to explain onstage than our Indochina adventure. Not because we are a more sophisticated people than we were during the Vietnam War, but because without the military draft, Iraq, like global warming, is something that mostly happens to other people — and anyway, we think, there’s nothing we can really do about it. The domestic moral damage caused by Iraq is deceptively containable because it’s not accompanied by the kind of social revolution that terrified middle America during the 1960s. Like Major Fredericks, what we forget is the common national ground that those tumultuous years turned to quicksand is Iraq’s starting point — and we are now a country on a permanent adrenalin dump.

HARM’S WAY | By SHEM BITTERMAN | CIRCUS THEATRICALS STUDIO THEATER at the Hayworth, 643 S. Carondelet St., L.A. | Through February 9 | (323) 960-1054

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