By Naomi Wallace
Directed by Kasi Campbell
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
This is a difficult piece-to watch, to write about, to reflect on. Dealing with war is not easy, but it is a reality. If you’re ready to get immersed in the heart of the psychological battles that rage long after soldiers leave combat, this is a fascinating study.
While the play presumably covers the period between the Vietnam War in 1968 and the first Gulf War of 1991, issues from those periods are juxtaposed with the current realities in Afghanistan and Iraq in a seamless search for meaning. Besides, ghosts don’t keep track of the eras they represent, or stay within neat calendar boundaries. They disappear and re-appear, that’s their job, and the ghosts of In the Heart of America do their jobs well.
What makes the story unique is that the through line is based on a young Palestinian woman’s search for what happened to her brother Remzi. As she badgers his military buddy who initially denied knowing anything about him, details start to surface about Remzi. He appears in flashbacks teasing and playing games with his sister, and later, we see the army buddies apparently provided more comfort and solace to each other than they originally let on.
Another storyline told in dream format emerges of the commanding officer, Lieutenant Boxler, a representation of the infamous Lieutenant Calley, notorious for orchestrating the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Boxler has his share of palpable memories, most of which appear as apparitions of his notoriously bad behavior in Vietnam, whether brutalizing the Viet Cong peasants, callously treating a young Vietnamese girl, or wholesale slaughter of the village.
Tuyet Thi Pham as Lue Ming plays fractured bits of his tortured memory. They are forever joined; she follows his every step, and throughout the play he carries her from stage right to centerstage bends over, and tosses her into a small tunnel built over the platform of sand. The play opens, in fact, with that image of him carrying and dumping her even when the lights are still up and is repeated when the lights go down. The resulting effect makes you wonder what happened, Was that intentional? Did they enter too soon and have to do it over? Playwright Naomi Watts seems intent on stirring up questions about what’s real, what’s intended, what happened versus what was supposed to, and director Kasi Campbell keeps the tension just right to keep up the guessing.
Campbell gets excellent performances from all the actors. Alexander Strain portrays the moody Remzi, Fairouz’s brother, raised in America of Palestinian descent, brooding about being ostracized as a child for his darker skin, different culture, never fitting in. Strain carries his character’s aloneness like a sheer veneer over every move he makes, the tilt of his head, the downcast eyes. Only when he finds full acceptance in a fellow combat soldier who also has his own burdens to bear does he open up unguarded and seem to relish life and living. He is nicely matched by Brandon McCoy who portrays his buddy Craver Perry, a good ‘ole Kentucky boy, authentic and refreshingly real. McCoy lights up the stage as he reveals his growing relationship with Remzi through flashbacks, through combat, close calls, and digging deep into their souls to discover their own drastic triggers of sheer rage to use in combat, interrogation, or survival.
Boxler, played to the hilt by Tim Getman, buzz hair cut and all, has the chiseled facial features and intense hard jaw expression of a kill or be killed soldier. Intent on driving the soldiers to the brink, along with his other “girls” as he demeaningly refers to his recruits, is astonishingly effective, to the point of being scary. Getman is on the receiving end of all those psychological layers, portraying Boxler as the hard wired killer that he is, but with fleeting moments of hurt, remorse, and even pain beneath the rock solid protective armor. It’s quite a performance.
Pham is saddled with representing the ghosts of My Lai, the Viet Cong, innocent villagers. She’s tossed like a sack of rotten potatoes into the ravine throughout the play, at one point, she’s face down in the sand for so long it’s truly a wonder how she breathes. But she does, gets up, gets out, and breathes life into her various characters with captivating effectiveness.
Dan Conway’s set design contains more sand than many play lots, and the actors must simply make peace with its ubiquitous presence. They stomp through it, wallow in it, get thrown face down in it, at one point Strain’s character pours it invitingly into a plate as if to ingest it. It is everywhere and reflects the environment of a part of the world that is turning into killing fields for our young men and women.
In the Heart of America puts a spotlight on issues of war, and reminds us that its casualties run deep into the psyche. Wallace’s script is tough to watch at times; its nuanced brutality makes it an unusual selection for Rep Stage. But it wisely chose Kasi Cambpell to direct, who, in the early 1980s took a “self-imposed exile from the theatre and signed up to work for the Army managing a U.S. military community center in Germany.” With Kasi Campbell at the helm, In the Heart of America has found a trustworthy and compassionate interpretor.
Running Time: 2:00 hours
When: Thru June 29th . Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30; Friday & Saturday at 8, and Saturday & Sunday matinees at 2:30.
Where: Rep Stage, at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD
Call: 410-772-4900 or visit the website.