Honey Brown Eyes
written by Stefanie Zadravec
directed by Jessica Lefkow
produced by Theater J
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Ethnic cleansing. Serbians and Croatians. Sarajevo. There was a time, not long ago when these terms and names were as unfamiliar as ancient languages or distant planets. It wasn’t long before everyday Americans got a crash course in world geography when pictures of families trudging along the countryside filled the airwaves. The world premiere Honey Brown Eyes brings that world up close and personal, explosive and disturbingly real.
The play opens in one of the two parallel towns in Bosnia. Visegrad is about to be overtaken and torched by Serbian soldiers. Alexander Strain and Maia DeSanti deliver remarkable performances as Dragan, a hapless soldier following orders and going through the motions of soldiering, and Alma, just another faceless woman until they discover their shared history. Just as the play makes the war personal for the viewer, Alma’s recollection of their earlier connection draws Dragan into his past. Strain’s performance shows why he is considered one of the finest actors in town. Despite the script’s full throttle intensity and loud barrage of expletives, Strain also displays touching restraint at the few tender glimpses of his character’s humanity.
DeSanti offers a well matched balance in her delicate and deliberate portrayal of Alma who evolves from nondescript victim to a former fan of the band that Dragan played in. It is here where playwright Stefanie Zadravec provides the “six degrees of separation” twist and shapes the crux and heart of the play. It’s a crucial premise since it sets up the entire raison d’être for the second act where in Sarajevo, a Muslim freedom fighter played by Joel Reuben Ganz, finds refuge with an elderly Bosnian woman who easily sees him as a surrogate for her grandson. Ganz carries the weight of all of the questionable decisions he’s made on his shoulders and in his lost expressions of hopelessness in a touching performance. Barbara Rappaport as the elderly woman is a riot, scraping around for food, wistfully longing to listen to her precious Handel music. Rappaport’s character has mentally compartmentalized her grandson’s certain death and is able to scold his antics and misdeeds with “he’s going to get it as soon as he gets home” admonishments, knowing full well that’s not going to happen.
Two kitchens, two sets of characters caught in different aspects of the same brutal war, separate, but with an underlying thread of familiarity and uncanny connection. One slip and the play loses its voice, its balance and becomes more like a brilliant writing exercise to express the effects of the cruelty and barbarian aspects of the war on everyday people instead of a unified theatrical experience.
The jury is still out on whether the play hits that mark as effectively as it portrays the heartbreaking breakdown of civil society into its ancient fractious parts where seemingly overnight, old tribal hatreds burst into flames of atrocity and horror. The play is plagued with disturbing unevenness where atrocities mingle freely with fun-loving references, for example to the old sit-com “Alf”. The juxtaposition of the horrors mingling with everyday banality results in a smorgasborg of styles that’s ferociously hard to pull off. The most challenging stretch goes fanatical when a pre-teen young girl who has just witnessed her mother being slaughtered comforts herself in front of the killer’s smoking gun by rocking in a chair, emotionless, insisting she is Rudy Huxtable from the Cosby Show. It’s a bizarre stretch that’s probably supposed to hit both heart and humor but the stakes are so sickeningly high the result is more a dazed and perplexed reaction, probably not the playwright’s intent.
As a world premiere work in progress, Honey Brown Eyes sheds light on how normal, everyday people, including childhood friends can devolve into perpetrators of unspeakable cruelty. This production by a talented almost powerhouse local writer depicts the hearts and souls of those thousands of faces previously only captured in 2-minute sound bites and is worth the effort to get it right.
Running Time: 2:00 with intermission
When: Thru November 30th. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 7:30pm, Saturday at 8, Sunday matinee at 3pm
Where: DC Jewish Community Theater, 1529 16th Street, NW. Washington, DC
Call: Box Office: Box Office TIXS at 800-494-TIXS or consult the website.
Jessica Anya Blau says
I agree with Michael Johnson’s summary that the play was powerful and moving. One of the things that was so moving about it, was what the reviewer calls “the juxtaposition of the horrors mingling with everyday banality.” Popular culture has so thoroughly entered most cultures on the planet that it is inexorably linked to both the brutality and the beauty of life. Music, in particular, plays a strong part in Ms. Zadravec’s play: it is the link between Alma and Dragon, Jovanka and Denis, and Jovanka and her grandson. It is thing that links soldiers to their homeland. Think of Toby Keith’s impact on American troops today. When the young girl in Honey Brown Eyes says her name is Rudy Huxtable (a Cosby child from The Cosby Show) it is both touching and heartbreaking–an example of a shattered soul reaching for some way to adhere herself to a better world, a better life, and a place (the place of sitcoms) where the people you love aren’t being murdered for reasons that are beyond a child’s comprehension.
The performances in Honey Brown Eyes were all startling, moving and chilling in their ability to make the audience feel an intimacy with the savagery of the conflict. I would highly recommend this play to anyone who is interested in humanity and the things that pull us together and drive us apart.
Michael Johnson says
First and foremost, your review comes dangerously close to containing spoilers, something I think your reviewer should have considered when writing this piece, as a courtesy to your audience.
Secondly, what you question as a premise — “the horrors of everyday life mingling with everyday banality” — is exactly what war has become in modern times, and your questioning of its authenticity reveals an ignorance about what actually happens in modern war. People who are trying to live normal lives are caught in the middle. War no longer occurs on remote battlefields between uniformed soldiers. It happens in people’s living rooms and kitchens. It comes into their lives in heartbreaking and shattering ways. Honey Brown Eyes avoids the cliches of most “war plays” and in so doing provides a real, tangible, human perspective of its devastation.
At the same time, the humanity and subtle humor instilled into key moments in the play reveal a sensitivity to character to realism often lacking in works dealing with the same issue.
We expected to see a war play; instead we were treated to the promise of great theater everywhere: we shared the action with the players on stage and, in so doing, became part of the experience in all its exuberant and heart-breaking moments. Powerful and moving are the two words I’d use to describe Ms. Zadravec’s Honey Brown Eyes.
This is a powerful play, and I think what the reviewer takes as dazed and perplexed is a fully engaged and shell-shocked audience.
Also, the reviewer has so many facts wrong here (the older woman was a Serb, wanting to hear Mahler) that I wonder if she was really paying attention… Serbian Croatians? Huh? what does that even mean?
This was one of the most original pieces of work I have seen in a long time.