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.