Steppenwolf Theatre

Angels in America is a tough act to follow. Ten years ago Tony Kushner, then 37, managed to capture all the rage, despair, confusion, desperation, and soul sickness stirred up in the wake of the AIDS pandemic, transform it into thrilling theater, and conquer Broadway with two three-hour installments of political audacity and intellectual rigor at a time when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s substance-free spectacles reigned. Since then Kushner’s theatrical output has been disappointing; his most successful post-Angels play, Slavs!, felt more like carefully rendered research than life. Then up popped Homebody/Kabul to prove just how much good work the playwright still holds in reserve.

Of course, no play of consequence just pops up–Homebody/Kabul has gone through more than a dozen drafts, including several since its December 2001 premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop; Kushner even retooled the play again for this Steppenwolf production. Its origins go back to 1997, when actress Kika Markham asked Kushner to write her a monologue. The resulting hour-long one-woman show, Homebody, is so linguistically and philosophically dense it would seem impossible, even foolhardy, to perform. But the demanding, circuitous piece makes for riveting theater in the right actress’s hands, and Steppenwolf’s Amy Morton is so right you’d swear it was written for her.

The nameless homebody, a sequestered, fortysomething British wife and mother whose life consists almost entirely of reading books, is charming, self-effacing, and so lonely in her incommunicative marriage that, given a receptive audience, she chatters on and on. Director Frank Galati places Morton far downstage in a comfy chair, a sampling of her copious library stacked gracefully around her. With her precious books at her fingertips, she’s the picture of domestic tranquility, although the enormous black void that surrounds her suggests something more ominous.

As Morton makes clear from the moment she appears, she’s plagued by some mental itch she can’t scratch. Her current reading material is a sorely outdated but exhaustively researched guidebook to Kabul. She’s enamored of the ancient city for its seemingly limitless capacity to appeal to artists, philosophers, rulers, and historians despite centuries of invasion, conquest, and brutality. The magical spot has long been home to the perpetually displaced, and the homebody knows the pain of displacement all too well–her taciturn husband and disdainful daughter have pulled her family life out from under her.

Paradoxically, her rootlessness is exacerbated by the one thing that gives her a sense of grounding: her passion for books. She uses them as windows onto a world she’s afraid to engage firsthand, ingesting their syntax so completely that she now speaks in nearly impenetrable literary prose, with an arcane vocabulary and a penchant for linking dependent clause upon dependent clause. As a result no one can stand to listen to her, she says, least of all her husband and daughter. So she lives in a Kabul of the past–of 1965, to be exact, when the book was published–admitting that a few decades’ distance gives even the most brutal realities a nostalgic glow.

But even with her books she’s unable to retreat fully from the present: the spread of modernity has reduced the magic of foreign cultures to tourist junk. Onstage with her are ten Afghan hats she bought in a local shop. Rather than bringing delight, she explains, the hats cloud her imagination with the horrors of slave labor, and recalling the three fingers neatly sliced off the salesman’s right hand sends her into a swoon of imagined atrocities. The simple act of offering her credit card to the man seems to her an act of cultural corruption.

As he did throughout Angels, Kushner uses a small, ordinary act–buying imported hats in a tiny shop–to illustrate worldwide maladies. Morton rises to Kushner’s brilliance every step of the way. She makes the monstrously wordy text bright and airy and turns what could have been a freakish character into someone pitifully human. She takes the audience on a vivid journey across 5,000 years of Afghan history without rising from her chair. Perhaps most impressively of all, she ends not with a grand crescendo but with a tender sustain. As the homebody decides to leave her cocoon and fly to Kabul–in what may be an act of liberation or of suicide–Morton walks casually offstage, metaphorically handing over the play to the dozen other actors who will carry on for the rest of the evening. After such virtuoso work, she gives no finale but simply gets out of the way.

The world that opens before us as the homebody leaves the stage–the ruins of modern-day Kabul–takes some getting used to. Part of the problem stems from the enormity of Kushner’s sudden shift, but the bigger problem rests in James Schuette’s uncharacteristically hokey set. Flanking the stage are two bombed-out buildings that look fake, but not quite fake enough to be impressionistic. An equally bogus dilapidated wall spins on a huge turntable to reveal a sparsely furnished hotel room. The overly literal yet glaringly inauthentic pieces suggest we’re in for a lot of silly playacting, an acute disappointment after the unadorned authenticity of Morton’s monologue.

But within a few minutes, Galati’s cast does much to make up for Schuette’s scenery. In the hotel room sit the homebody’s husband, Milton; Quango Twistleton, a British official; an Afghan doctor; and a mullah. Behind a suspended bedsheet sits Priscilla, the homebody’s daughter, veiled for the sake of the mullah. The doctor reads an exhaustive clinical description of a woman’s body beaten and torn asunder–the body, we quickly discover, of the homebody. It seems she wandered uncovered and sporting a Walkman into a Taliban-controlled area of the city, and the crowd dismembered her for her violations. Her body, somehow, has vanished.

Over the next two and a half hours, Milton and his daughter try to comprehend the inexplicable disappearance of a woman they never really knew in the first place. Headstrong Priscilla, convinced her mother is still alive, charges out into the street, where her journey is nearly ended before it’s begun when a member of the religious police catches her out of her burqa. Only the intercession of a poet named Khwaja saves her. Khwaja volunteers to become her guide through Kabul–perhaps because he could use the few extra pounds she offers, perhaps because he wants her to take his poems to a publisher in England. But like the homebody, his language of choice leaves him unable to communicate; his poems are all written in Esperanto. Khwaja insists that Priscilla’s mother is not dead but instead has converted to Islam, married an Afghan man, and renounced her former life and family. Furthermore, he claims, she wants Priscilla to take her new husband’s former wife–who’s gone mad like so many women in Kabul–back to London in her stead, if only Twistleton can be persuaded to provide the right papers.

In two relatively brief scenes, Kushner not only sets in motion an intricate and compelling mystery but creates an urgent need for Priscilla, the lead character of this act, to scour Kabul, giving the audience a tour of ground zero of an international catastrophe. That tour brings the horrors of an obliterated land to unsettling life. Priscilla meets Zai, a former actor who may have access to her mother. His profession was banned by the Taliban, as was his great passion: music. He compensates by speaking almost exclusively in Frank Sinatra lyrics, and when Priscilla gives him the chance to listen to “Come Fly With Me” on her mother’s Walkman (the only personal effect recovered from the alleged murder site), he collapses into desperate sobs over the state of his ravaged city. Then she meets Mahala, the woman Khwaja wants her to take to London. Mahala unleashes a litany of atrocities she has witnessed, speaking a mad flood of English, French, German, and Dari. She has been left so overcome with fury that she doesn’t know where to direct it. “I cannot cease shouting all day,” she says. “A bird, a bird taps the window, I shout at these bird, ‘Die, break your neck at the glass!'”

Thanks to Kushner’s unsparing writing and the cast’s blistering performances, cliched C-SPAN images of forlorn or raving Afghans become atrociously human. To suggest, as the Sun-Times did, that Kushner’s portrait is dated because the Taliban is no longer in power seems a willful refusal to confront one of the play’s central truths: Afghanistan has been torn apart by various occupying powers since its creation, and the misery continues to accumulate.

Once Kushner has familiarized us with Kabul, he shifts his focus to the relationship between Milton and Priscilla. It’s a move that might seem shallow–who cares if these two get along when faced with the woes of an entire country?–but Kushner digs deep into his characters to expose strains of such vulnerability and cruelty that they almost can’t help but inflict irreparable emotional damage on each other, damage that achieves a kind of mythic resonance given the enormity of the destruction around them. It’s as though our “awful present” can leave no home standing.

Like Angels in America, Homebody/Kabul is an ordeal of a play, but it never panders or self-congratulates. It’s packed with humor, and part of Galati’s success here is his ability to maintain a tone that allows horror and comedy to coexist. He’s also given his courageous cast all the room they need to explore Kushner’s huge story. And their exploration is so thorough that they hardly seem to be acting. This is that rare cast utterly at home in a fictional world, and their ease eliminates the need for showy display, even in moments of extreme emotional distress. They let the play happen to them, rather than forcing it into being. Believing it requires no effort on our part, an extraordinary accomplishment given the complex demands of the text.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.