The Awful Truth
Early Baltimore Playwright's Festival Entry Sets Bar Very High
It's probably by chance, but the College of Notre Dame's tiny Marian Copeland Theatre, where the Theatrical Mining Company is presenting The Blessed Mothers of War, has the ambiance of a coal mine. Since this superb Baltimore Playwright's Festival offering deals with the subject of Abu Ghraib prison, the claustrophobic effect is appropriate. Ty DeMartino's two-act play leaves you with the unsettling sense that if our country stands united after that ugly chapter in our history, it's the sort of unity that involves people trampling one another in an effort to get out the door.
It`s a bad situation for us as a nation, but it provides an embarrassment of riches dramatically. Abu Ghraib, possibly more than anything else in Iraq, has left Americans across the political spectrum wondering what exactly has happened to us as a country. So it makes sense that the play's nutshell of truth is delivered by Brian (Peter Kendall), the soldier who leaked the photographs of Abu Ghraib. It's not what he did that has turned him into an object of revulsion, but that he told the truth about it.
What he did, of course, was highly objectionable. Brian, a private who entered the military for financial reasons, finds himself confronted with prisoners from Abu Ghraib and a mandate to make them talk. Brian has two close companions, also from his hometown: Sally (Jenn Mikulski), a young private who wants to show she's got balls, and Mark (Charles Brice), her somewhat jittery boyfriend. As he delves into their curious sexual relationship, DeMartino breaks ground as a dramatist.
DeMartino doesn't go too deeply into the details of the torture itself. The three soldiers talk about their encounters with prisoners less as the war criminals we see in the photos than as scared kids, trapped in a situation they don't understand. DeMartino has them respond to their predicament using the classic strategies: sex, denial, and confession. None of them appears to work.
The witness to this cruel drama is Rosie, Brian's mother. Peggy Dorsey plays the part with a stoic, unsentimental grace that deftly avoids any of the wailing war-mom stereotypes. As we soon find out, Brian has been without a father since he was 2. DeMartino uses that detail to liberate Brian and his mother from the traditional parent-child hierarchy. In this play, they're desperately trying to defend their relationship from outside forces. At one striking point, when Rosie complains that her son hasn't been e-mailing her, she sounds like an angry girlfriend.
There are a number of moments like that, and those subtleties set DeMartino above the common share as a playwright. His characters do what they're supposed to do, but they don't do it in the expected ways. While it doesn't redeem them, it offers a spark of hope. When Brian's fiancée, Caroline (Ashley Fain), dumps him after his imprisonment, DeMartino allows her to turn it into a minor act of courage. Not only does she tell Brian she's leaving, but she also tells Rosie. When Rosie tells her erstwhile daughter-in-law that she's got balls, she does so without a hint of irony.
That may be the central point here. Americans in his play still have mojo, but they don't know how to use it. Brian winds up killing a prisoner when he didn't mean to. Mikulski, in an excellent performance, portrays a female private so intimidated by her situation that she tries to take up the interrogation as a challenge. As she gamely puts on her rubber gloves for another session of "softening up," she appears to be struggling against her own innate sense of revulsion. And DeMartino is also telling us that the sooner we start thinking seriously about it, the better.
DeMartino is trying to say a lot here, because a lot needs to be said. Formally, he is taking a Brechtian slant, with carefully choreographed crowd scenes. Sometimes it works; at other points, things get a little stiff. He also tries to expand our perspective by showing us a burqa-clad mother, Zaira (Rita Walters), burying her son, a victim of the U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib. It's a laudable attempt to offer an Iraqi counterpoint to the American mother, but the characterization is still thin. It's also an approach that this reviewer has seen employed recently in another play. If DeMartino really wants to show us an Iraqi mother, her son has to be more than an anonymous resistance fighter.
DeMartino has obviously made a number of tough choices already, and he may have to make more in the future. Hopefully, he'll keep at it, because this is one play that people should see. For the moment, director Barry Feinstein, the Theatrical Mining Company cast, and DeMartino have dug deeply, and, it's safe to say, they've struck gold.
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