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A CurtainUp Review

In the Heart Of America
By Kathryn Osenlund

Why are we killing Arabs?
For love. Say it's for love. Don't say it's for oil. Say it just once for me. We're here for love.
--- interchange between Craver Perry and Remzi Saboura
Perhaps Naomi Wallace believes that the magic of poetry conquers all. The Philadelphia premiere of her 1994 play, In the Heart of America is being presented by the InterAct Theatre Company at the Adrienne. Artistic director Seth Rozin finds the agenda of this poetic anti-war love play written in reaction to the Gulf War of 1991, and laced with intimations of Vietnam, pertinent to the current Iraq situation and suited to the liberal political philosophy and mission of InterAct. But can poetry conquer the play's problems?

Early on, the ghost of a Vietnamese woman, hanging around in the aftermath of the last Iraq war, asks for Calley. Does she mean the Lt. Calley of 1968? She does. InterAct's audience knows from Calley. I wondered if the playwright could count on Calley being common knowledge elsewhere. In order to have a clue about parts of this play, that would be a prereq. (The morning after seeing the play I asked a few twenty-something college graduates, including a former marine, "Who was Lt. Calley?" They had no idea.)

Primarily this is a love story about two soldiers --one, Remzi Saboura, an Arab-American who wants to be American without the hyphen, the other, Craver Perry, a White trash river boy. Ably played by Kevin Prowse (Remzi) and Davey White (Craver), the young men's smaller, more visceral moments are the best scenes in the play. Notably an episode where Remzi shares a bag of figs with Craver is full of little intimacies and theatrical promise. To pass the time Craver memorizes ways to kill and lists weapons in a mantra or lullaby.

The soldiers' sensual weapon--love talk-- showcases Wallace's poetry:"Ever had a Phoenix missile at the tip of your tongue?". . ."A kiss is like the AV AB Harrier 2 straight up in the air. . .VTO straight up." Almost but not quite too weird to be comic, the two young soldiers rehearse how one will walk to approach the body if the other is killed. They find a walk with "a quiet sense of pride."

A downside to even these great little moments is that although in a poetic work, verisimilitude is not of primary importance, it is disconcerting to watch a play about soldiers who are so non-regulation that it strains credulity. Some resemblance to the actual military would help.

In another part of the story two women, one alive, one a ghost, search for answers and for two men, both dead. Lue Ming (Jennifer Kato) is the ghost of a Vietnamese woman killed by Lt. Calley, presumably at My Lai. She searches for him and haunts Boxler (Buck Schirner). The other woman, Fairouz Saboura (Soraya Broukhim), soldier Remzi's sister, tries to discover what happened to him. In a companion scene to the young soldiers' walking practice the women demonstrate ways of walking in their cultures.

Parts of the stories seem contrived and are difficult to follow: The significance of the gift of a ram's horn falters. It is for the dead soldier 's sister. She asks, "If you blow it, it will make a noise?" It seems the horn is meant to help her find her voice. However, this is a woman whose voice has been all-too-found throughout the play, rendering this theme incomprehensible. The sister-brother crucible, an intended major motif and underpinning, just doesn't come across.

Boxler, a souldier, and Universal Soldier type is over the top with his sadomasochistic, twisted interrogation games, racial epithets, and philosophies, "Facts are not infallible. They are there to be interpreted in a way that is useful to you." A conundrum, Boxler is conflated with Lt. Calley. How this happens is not clear. An enigma for the sake of an enigma?

Playwright Wallace, the '99 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, is interested in exploring in her work how different times will collide or resonate with each other. What's missing here is the logical connect.

This is a poetry play looking for something solid. The set, overly-lighted to represent the burning sun of the desert by day, evokes nothing so much as "stage set," exposing the paint and seams of set pieces better left unnoticed. Nor are possibilities for the romantic light of evening exploited as they might be. It's just kind of fuzzy. A scene with lanterns begs for, but doesn't get, deep nuanced lighting. The very best lighting (and make up) is found in the initial scenes with the Vietnamese ghost as she half glimmers in the dim light.

Insofar as the structure of this play allows, Rozin has done some wonderful work. The flexibility and fluidity with which he utilizes limited space to reflect shifts of time and space/living and dead is remarkable. The direction of the actors is admirable, and performances are marvelous, notably those of Prowse, Kato, and White.

Unfortunately, rewarding little intimacies are too infrequent and fuzziness and sweeping statements too populous. Many mystery elements remain mysteries to the end. Underdeveloped or unresolved story lines about war horrors, expiation, love, and homophobia never tie together; consequently the play fails to reconcile its parts into a cohesive whole. It just doesn't seem completely thought out, despite the many fine directorial choices and a good cast and team of designers. It is as if at some level they trust, with the playwright, that poetic magic is going to take care of everything.

Most of all In the Heart of America is disappointing because it lacks clarity, with nothing fully realized. The problem is not so much the murk of war or memory, but the murk of muddled writing.
In the Heart of America
Playwright, Naomi Wallace
Directed by Seth Rozin
Cast: Davey White, Soraya Broukhim, Jennifer Kato, Kevin Prowse, Buck Schirner
Scenic Design: Dirk Durossette
Lighting Design: Peter Jakubowski
Costume Design: Karen Ann Ledger
Sound Designer: Kevin Francis Running time just under 2 hours with one 15 min intermission
InterAct Theatre Company at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street 215.568.8077
Web: I
02/13/04 - 03/14/04;

opening 02/18/04

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 02/18 performance

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