|Ron Cephas Jones stars as Odysseus in “Ajax.” (Photo courtesy of American Repertory Theatre)
Today, some American soldiers come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Is this something new?
Just look at the anxiety plaguing the title hero in the ancient Greek tragedy “Ajax,” opening Saturday at the Loeb Drama Center in an American Repertory Theatre production, and one is to gain new appreciation for Sophocles’ insight about the damage of war to mind as well as body.
Ron Cephas Jones, who is playing Ajax’s healthier fellow Trojan War veteran Odysseus, has been gaining that kind of appreciation during rehearsals with Director Sarah Benson. In fact, the 54-year-old, New York-based actor, who holds a B.A. in fine and performing arts from Ramapo College in New Jersey, told the Banner that Benson and the cast “had a discussion about PTSD” and “what war does to men no matter what side you’re on.”
“Ajax” is described in an earlier translation of the play as having “desert attitude” after the war, but in the A.R.T. production — with a new translation by Charles Connaghan — the cast and crew have “modernized the words [“desert attitude”] as being kind of crazy,” Cephas Jones noted. Adding that “the look and feel of the setting (designed by David Zinn) is more contemporary” in this staging, he continued that “there’s a more contemporary military look to it.”
Benson is also highlighting the play’s attention to the affect of war on civilians as well as soldiers.
In the light of contemporary considerations, Odysseus looms as a striking role model of compassion and understanding. Cephas Jones spoke of him as “where man stands morally (in the play) as far as forgiveness.” Odysseus may win out over Ajax in their competition for the late Achilles’ armor. Still, the former appears to demonstrate real understanding about the emotional state in which the latter commits suicide, so much so that he endorses the burial of Ajax by his brother.
Technically, Odysseus may be a supporting character. “I think you could consider Odysseus like the bookends of the play.” Cephas Jones said, “It’s my goal to create a whole character from the bookends.”
Odysseus provides a major contrast to Ajax as a soldier who honors friendship and knows how to “separate his political skills from his military skills.”
The starting principle for this busy actor — whose stage work stretches from Old Vic and Yale Rep to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and The Public Theater — is that “Everything starts from the script.”
To hear Cephas Jones describe his approach to acting, it’s clear that he is able to obtain a sense of balance. On the one hand, he observed, “As we move along, we’re getting into isolating feelings and focusing on them.” On the other hand, he cautioned, “For me, it’s very important not to make the story too melodramatic.”
Challenges notwithstanding, Cephas Jones offered, “I’m very happy to be doing a full production of a Greek classic. “Equally at home with Shakespeare (“Othello,” “The Tempest” and “As You Like It” to name a few) and August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” he may now be equally comfortable with A.R.T. “I can’t say enough about A.R.T.,” he said.”It’s a joy to be part of this whole project.”
On Brent Harris, who plays Ajax, he said, “I think he’s fantastic in the role.” Ron Cephas Jones was also happy to be acting again alongside Linda Powell (seen earlier at A.R.T. in "Uncle Vanya") , with whom he worked in a production of the recent play "The Overwhelming." Powell plays Tecmessa, Ajax's wife. The cast of “Ajax” also includes A.R.T. veteran Thomas Derrah as Agamemnon and Kaaron Briscoe as Athena.