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Letter from New York, 2-22: Words at War
American Playwrights Respond to Iraq

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2008 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- As performed by the Fire Dept Theater Company at the Bleecker Street Theater on January 21 and 28 and February 4, "At War: American Playwrights Respond to Iraq" can be effectively described for what it was not as well as for what it was. It wasn't one of those familiar screeds which makes us feel good because it allows us to vent our anger at the war. It wasn't didactic, demagogic, or patronizing. It may not have presented all sides of the issue, but I think that's okay. That being said, it did not promote any one particular viewpoint above another, a refreshingly important element. So what was it? It was thoughtful and insightful. It illuminated and explored the human side of the war. It awakened ideas and viewpoints about the war that reveal the complexity of the subject. It made me think much more deeply about the war and its unintended consequences.

Cheo, frighteningly portrayed by Daniel Sunjata in Jose Rivera's "Gas," hates the fact that he hates Iraqis because they might kill the American soldier brother that he loves. He prays for the death of all Iraqis because in his mind any one of them might harm his brother, thus, if all Iraqis are dead, his brother will return home safely. In Jonathan Schaefer's "Fubur," an army captain, convincingly played by Derek Phillips, expresses his intense post-deployment anxiety to a social worker portrayed by Audrey Rosenberg. The captain is overwhelmed with grief at the loss of one of his men who died while being airlifted to an army hospital but it is his sense of injustice that is pushing him over a psychological cliff. His vexation centers on the fact that because this soldier died en route and not in the field of battle, the United States Army will not count him as an official combat death. We all know that the Pentagon is playing a numbers game with the casualty figures, but the depth of the deception as evoked here appalls me.

The show opened with Lynn Rosen's "Back From the Front," featuring the family of a wounded American soldier who has yet to return from hospital rehab. We are introduced to their plight as a television news reporter interviews them in their home. I was particularly moved by the mother character Wendy, portrayed by Judith Hawking, as she fielded questions from the reporter. She effectively projected the suffering and unspeakable pain of a mother worrying about the fate of her wounded son while trying to maintain a brave stance in support of the troops and the war. Her ability to extract our sympathy and force us to recognize her impossible situation was riveting. The other characters were throw-a-ways.

The funniest play of the evening was Iraq war veteran Ryan Kelly's "Rendition," in which we encounter three soldiers -- portrayed by Erik Jensen, Korey Jackson, and Jake Robards -- who share the same living quarters. The humor is in their surroundings, the inadequate supplies, one man's refusal to shower, and the good-natured insults as both black and white soldiers use racial and cultural stereotypes to harass their comrades in arms. The futility shared by the men in their day-to-day existence highlights their simple priorities, staying alive being the most important.

The less effective short works, "The Professor" and "Sahra," shared the idea of a story told in the first person. Not quite monologues, both were more asides.

In Jessica Blank's "Sahra," Marla, portrayed by the playwright, laments her inability to prevent the slow death of a young Iraqi girl who has been wounded by American bombs. Upon finding the girl still alive, Marla attempts to get her airlifted to a hospital. Although told by the Americans that the girl will be flown to where she can receive care, Marla later learns that she and eight others injured in the bombing died before they could be moved. In "The Professor," Sinan, a native Iraqi played by Jeremy Webb, reads from his diary and reflects upon his change of status from his family's exile from Sadam's Iraq when they refused to join the Bath party to his present day life after returning to Iraq. Ruminating on his existence in this land that he no longer recognizes, he reveals that although he sounds like he is trying to help in the social reconstruction of his shattered homeland, he feels some guilt about maintaining a bourgeois lifestyle while many suffer without.

The evening was completed by "Phosphorescence," "Abu Ghraib Triptych," "Two Soldiers," "Note to Self," "The Failed Goddess of Rain," and "Finale."

Although many of the plays were uneven, the acting was consistently of the highest caliber; the actors where superb. I hope the playwrights continue to work on the less complete pieces and refine them to something more than personal statements. But, no matter the play, the stories need to be told -- these ideas need air.

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