“There are three kinds of people: those who kill, those who die, those who watch.”
We meet all three kinds in “In the Heart of America.” Written by Naomi Wallace, the play is a one-hour whirlwind of kaleidoscopic scenes: a Kentucky motel room, 1991 Iraq, and a limbo of the mind (not to mention the past, the present and the hypothetical) melt together at breakneck pace. The play races forward, switching perspectives and plotlines with head-spinning speed. The landscape (designed by Lee Savage) is an expansive desert, with doors set into the horizon. It is unusually immense for the intimate space of the Cabaret, but Catherine A. Tate’s lighting design is an amazing complement. It matches the play’s fluidity with economy, beauty and clarity. Once “In the Heart of America” has established its dominant themes and locations we find ourselves revisiting scenes we barely remember we had forgotten.
The plot revolves around two soldiers in the first Gulf War: Craven Perry, (Eric Gilde) “Kentucky trash” who joins the army because he can’t find a job at home, and Remzi Saboura (Alec Grennan) an Arab-American who joins to escape his prickly mother and to gain the “quiet pride” promised by the recruiter. Their experiences fighting abroad are reconstructed by Remzi’s sister Fairouz (Mozhan Navabi). She tracks Perry down in his motel room and interrogates him, grimly determined to learn the details of her brother’s life and death.
Thrown into the mix are Lou Ming (Jennifer Lim) and Boxler (Marcus Dean Fuller), antagonists from the past who step in and out of the lives of the three contemporary characters. Boxler is a confident American soldier, Lou a warily aggressive Viet-Cong.
The acting is strong. Gilde and Grennan hide their characters’ naivete under facades of unconcerned bravado, blurring the boundary between soldierly male-bonding and courtship in fascinating ways. Grennan is also outstandingly adept in finding the humor in Wallace’s writing.
Lim is excellent as Lou, crouched in anticipation of attack, too proud to speak without irony. Fuller is equally good in an equally ambiguous role (audience members who saw the Dramat’s production of Wallace’s “Slaughter City” last October will recognize a tendency in Wallace to allegorize). Navabi’s character has a deformed foot which has gone some way toward making her an emotional cripple. Though moving and funny, Navabi’s delivery skates perilously close to declamation; Wallace demands that actors underplay, but Director Banjamin Mosse allows the play to slip into monotone and unvaried tempo too frequently.
The play has moments of clarity; a character’s guard goes down and we catch a heart-rending glimpse of tenderness beneath the battle-hardened shell. In the midst of a terrifying cover-up operation, Perry and Remzi find something real and solid in each other: “Say we’re doing this for love,” Perry begs. “Not for oil, or for democracy; I can’t understand that anymore. Tell me we are doing this for love.” Remzi’s bitterness about her deformed foot melts when Perry duplicates her brother’s solicitous care. The best of these aching moments are between Lou and Boxler, whose hatred is the play’s most practiced adult and whose inner cores, exposed fleetingly, are the most lost and child-like.
With Iraq back in the news and the role of American force in the world a subject for intense debate, “In the Heart of America” is a highly relevant play. It cannot (and wisely does not, with a few embarrassing exceptions) try to be a political play, none of its ideas has any real opposition vying for our hearts and minds. In Wallace’s world, the military and American foreign policy are unambiguous fonts of evil, soldiers (except when they are lovers) are unfailingly brutish, and Palestinian refugees are universally saintly. Without a voice of their own, there’s no dramatic tension when Wallace pillories her evil-doers or lauds her heroes, and the play’s few attempts to find dark humor in politics subsequently fall flat.
It is in the personal, the small, the elusive that Wallace captivates.