If the quality of a play were measured only on the basis of the sensational effect it had on those who watched it, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Lidless would be the best play not only in this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival but perhaps in the entire theater year.
It hits with the power of an electric stun gun and, supported by a superb cast and excellent technical values, presents a searing emotional journey which bonds an American criminal to her victim in ways no one would expect.
Unfortunately, the development at the core of the play is entirely implausible.
Lidless is a story which springs out of America’s execrable torture policy, which, according to a lawyer for a self-described terrorist, included “Invasion of Space by a Female”. He describes this as “a number of tactics from a female interrogator straddling (the terrorist) and molesting him while other military guards pin his body to the floor against his will to a female interrogator rubbing his neck and hair, often until (the terrorist) resists with force and is subdued by military guards.”
In Lidless, the interrogator is Alice (Eva Kaminsky), a Texas tomboy who is eager to launch “Invasion of Space by a Female” even though she has only a week left on her tour, and the victim is Bashir (Barzin Akhavan), an innocent, whose only crime was to be a bystander during a raid on a Pakistani mosque. We are asked to believe that during their time together at Gitmo, Alice committed an act so outrageous that it not only defied the “Invasion of Space” rules but put her own life at risk, with soap-opera consequences. Sorry, I didn’t buy it.
It wasn’t for lack of narrative skill, either on Cowhig’s part or on the part of the magnificent actors. Cowhig has a wonderful ear for dialogue and, seemingly effortlessly, creates vivid characters in Alice, her husband Lucas (Michael Goodfriend), her daughter Rhiannon (Reema Zaman) and her friend Riva (Zabryna Guevara), as well as in Bashir. The play is principally set fifteen years after Alice and Bashir first encountered each other, which is to say, about nine years in our own future. Alice now runs a flower shop in Minnesota, and is a beloved wife and mother. And Bashir…Bashir’s life has been in ruins since the day he first confronted Alice. He has been an outcast in his own country; he has not seen his daughter since she was three; and he is dying of liver disease. He holds Alice accountable, and demands no less than half of her liver to re-balance the scales of justice.
Part of what makes Lidless so dramatically powerful is the way Cowhig writes the character of Bashir. He is the anti-terrorist: sweet, wise, compassionate, and yet fully human. He develops a cheery relationship, without the hint of a hidden agenda, with Rhiannon, a bright girl whose Achilles heel is severe asthma. His demands on Alice are the requirements of simple justice, which become more and more apparent as Bashir confronts Alice in her home with her husband (Goodfriend is particularly strong in this role). Akhavan plays Bashir at perfect pitch, expertly encapsulating both his pain and his dignity.
Kaminsky has a more difficult role as Alice, less because of her criminality than because Cowhig has loaded the character with additional implausibilities. For example, we are to believe that Alice takes pills which allow her to selectively erase certain memories – a startling medical advance, even nine years into the future. In addition, Alice purportedly carries a fatal sexually-transmitted disease, but has never told her husband. Notwithstanding these difficulties, Kaminsky establishes a plausible character who does implausible things. Her performance in this role, coupled with her dual performances in the beautiful Breadcrumbs, makes Kaminsky the best of a very fine set of Festival actors this year.
The decision of the United States to employ widespread torture in the aftermath of 9/11 is one of the most shameful events in our history, and it deserves an unflinching examination by a writer of Cowhig’s quality. The problem with Lidless is that instead of such an examination, Cowhig has conjured up something that did not happen and would be highly unlikely to happen, and painted it with a melodramatic consequence. Such a treatment ultimately trivializes our despicable actions at Gitmo, and their mortifying real consequences.
By Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
Produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Runing time: 80 minutes, with no intermission