In the Heart of America

About Face Theatre

at Jane Addams Center Hull House

One Flea Spare

at Victory Gardens Theater

By Carol Burbank

Remember the gulf war? The brief and Pyrrhic victory of 1991 gave us a chance to test devastating new weaponry, quickly becoming a psychotic little footnote to world history–though veterans continue to fight for medical recognition of the controversial gulf war syndrome and Saddam Hussein is still satanized in the popular press. Carefully controlled press coverage pumped up our nationalist zeal then and obscured the repercussions of the war, both here and in the Middle East.

But ignorance is inevitably bitter bliss, hiding wounds that ultimately cannot be ignored. That lesson is brought home by Naomi Wallace’s biting epic In the Heart of America, a carefully researched journey through the gulf war offering subtexts never hinted at in contemporary news reports. Like many American playwrights considered too political (read “progressive”) and too complicated (read “smart”) by U.S. producers, this artist has received more acclaim–and works more often–in England, where she now lives.

Wallace winds the three skeins of her nonlinear story more and more tightly together as the play progresses. The core is the love affair between Remzi Saboura and Craver Perry, a Palestinian-American soldier and his redneck best friend from Kentucky, an affair set off by high-adrenaline violence. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Boxler, teaches them to hone the anger from their pasts to killing intensity; he also adds his own associations to the play’s death spiral. Boxler is haunted by the 1968 My Lai massacre, particularly by the ghost of Lue Ming, a Vietnamese girl tortured in that infamous attack on civilians. Goading all the characters into revelations of horror and love, she winds the third skein into the spiral: Remzi’s sister Fairouz limps through the collage of scenes searching for answers to her brother’s disappearance, her crippled foot and bitterness symbolic of the anti-Arab violence that continues in the United States.

This About Face production makes these interlocking stories compelling, building the tension of each conflict with crisp timing and careful attention to Wallace’s remarkable language. Kyle Hall and Steve Futterman are particularly skillful as Craver and Remzi, capturing the vicious eroticism of wartime lust but also offering a shadowy promise of the love that makes one soldier’s death particularly tragic.

The muscular power of their physical connection is the play’s most transgressive aspect, revealing a forbidden side of the American military–a side that, in this production, seems inevitable despite the folly of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. Their love is verbalized as hatred in anti-Arab slurs, death fantasies, and gleeful, seductive recitations of the devastating new weapons being tested, whose coy, ordinary names (beehive, fleshettes) mask their brutal functions–dismembering anyone near the site of impact, for example. In a brilliant turn, Wallace makes these weapons part of the men’s erotic code, doubling the penetrations of violent death with the bacchanalian ecstasies of their intimacy, a pairing that ends in a tragic gay bashing.

The play’s other secrets make the soldiers’ love seem gentle by comparison. Lue Ming and Boxler–who turns into the brutal spirit of the original My Lai perpetrator, Lieutenant William Calley–relive the massacre as the sexually impotent Calley attempts to rape her, then tortures her and shoots the child in her arms. Kimberlee Soo plays Lue Ming with such subtlety that she manages to be both trickster-sprite and grieving spirit, cowing the powerful Boxler. His breakdown is both graceful and painful in a skilled performance by Nathan Rankin, who unmasks Boxler’s guilty humanity sympathetically. Although Boxler/Calley tries to kill Lue Ming, instead he’s driven to confess his own desolation. Her translucent, metaphoric power is almost operatic; she’s in every story like a refrain, touching every character, demanding retribution and honesty in a nest of lies.

When Lue Ming befriends Remzi’s sister, they share secrets equally worthy of operatic despair. These stories reveal the cost of bitter docility, which is Fairouz’s response to American racism. Maimed by anti-Arab schoolmates while her brother watched, Fairouz keeps the home fires burning, but no battles are being fought for her. She embodies the contradictions of American nationalism, which trumpets tolerance while punishing difference. Unfortunately Sharmila Devarajan gives the character only a glassy-eyed political rage. More irritating than interesting, she comes across as superficial because her character is expressed only in her face and her limp. When Fairouz seems merely crippled and mean-spirited, the home front can be only a wasteland whose story is told through polemical statements, not theatrical revelations.

Luckily, Wallace’s language infuses Fairouz with enough clarity that the other actors can sustain the play’s complex emotional and historical lines. Using an intriguing blend of romanticism and intelligence, director Eric Rosen keeps love–misguided, erotic, despairing, glorious–at the center of the characters’ interactions: each confrontation becomes a seduction, each seduction a battle. The tension he maintains is never released but rolls into another curve of the spiral, giving each successive turn more power.

The deceptively neutral surroundings become more menacing as the play goes on. In Geoff Curley’s simple, flexible set and Joel Moritz’s ingenious lighting design, rows of hanging lamps make the stage into an obstacle course, a battlefield strafed by bombs, and an interrogation room. A sandy-looking brown floor covered with netting implies both literal and metaphorical desert. Tented alcoves at the rear of the stage open to reveal brief tableaux and offer draped entrances and exits, as if the stage itself were hiding secrets.

About Face has provided a powerful showcase for this brilliant playwright. We need her boldness to break our social and artistic silences, to destroy the fragile complacency of what she calls “a culture of amnesia.”

Last year Naomi Wallace won an Obie for One Flea Spare, a brilliant, brutal, erotic play about four Londoners quarantined together during the plague of 1665. Kudos to director Barry Brunetti for choosing it as his MFA production. His actors, though students in DePaul University’s theater program, give solid performances that complement Wallace’s powerful script.

One Flea Spare opened the 1996 Humana Festival with a bang of controversy. People either loved or hated the play, which rubs our noses in fantastical, violent scenes of class conflict, sexual manipulation, and superstition. Deceptively simple, the narrative involves two aristocrats with a gothic secret behind their failed marriage; they’re quarantined with two commoners, a sailor and a servant girl. The play’s cathartic discoveries–hidden at first by facades that break down in ritualistic games of brutality, greed, and love–are layered with metaphors and set in a quicksand of lies. Ugly and beautiful, One Flea Spare is strong stuff for tender American sensibilities. And like In the Heart of America, it proves that a great writer can carry us heart, mind, and soul into the wild, strange land of our most passionate political and personal contradictions.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): In the Heart of America theater still-uncredited; One Flea spare photo Stephanie Howard (left), Lara Goetsch.