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Fog of War

Naomi Wallace Burrows Into The Country's Troubled Soul in This Bold Production

BASIC TRAINING: Tim Getman (center) subdues Alexander Strain as Brandon McCoy looks on.

By John Barry | Posted 6/11/2008

In the Heart of America

By Naomi Wallace

At Rep Stage through June 29

About half an hour into Naomi Wallace's In the Heart of America, the title comes back to haunt you. It's difficult to figure out whether there is a heart to this play. The images on the backdrop slowly melt across continents and decades, from a motel on a highway to Vietnam and Iraq, and the plot lines slowly twist around one another. Even the characters are a little unsure where they are: An officer named Boxler starts to get Iraq mixed up with Vietnam; a young Vietnamese woman seems to be transported from the rice patties of My Lai to Desert Storm, only to get shot in the sand.

You're not going to find closure in Wallace's effusive, poetic dreamscape, but as we know now, we didn't find much closure in the Gulf War. Thanks to a bold and meticulously directed production--and thanks to five excellent performances--you'll leave this production with plenty to think about. Wallace's plot is indeterminate; it bites off more than it can chew, and it leaves one more lost than one was to begin with. Given the subject, that dislocation is increasingly appropriate.

Craver Perry (Brandon McCoy) is a young man from Kentucky who has returned from the Gulf War with a chip on his shoulder. His friend and lover from the Army, Remzi Saboura (Alexander Strain), was killed in Iraq by "friendly fire." Craver meets with his lover's sister, Fairouz Saboura (Dacyl Acevedo), and they start to hash out the circumstances of Remzi's death.

The play flashes back to the desert, where Remzi and Craver are getting to know one another, as soldiers and, later, lovers. Lt. Boxler (Tim Getman), a somewhat nightmarish version of a military disciplinarian, starts hazing and baiting them while prepping them for battle and interrogation. That's when things start to move into the hallucinogenic, as the memories of individual soldiers melt into the national subconscious, and as Wallace flashes back to the My Lai Massacre, where Lue Ming (Tuyet Thi Pham) is a Vietnamese woman searching for Lt. Calley, the man ultimately held responsible for the murder of her daughter at Mai Lai. What Wallace is showing in this dreamscape setting is post-war history as a ceaseless battle between the United States and an enemy that it can't really get its hands on.

Boxler is the play's prototype, a bumbling, awkward, brutal, and deeply angry military officer whose persona has blurred into the earlier incarnation of Lt. Calley, court-martialed for the My Lai massacre. Red-faced, he digs deep into the core of the play's driving emotion while giving his two soldiers a brief lecture on encountering the enemy: Find your deepest insecurity, sexual or otherwise, and take that anger out on the enemy. (The fact that this play was written before Abu Ghraib makes the effect spookier, and seeing Standard Operating Procedure immediately after watching this play won't make for a great weekend, but it should validate much of what Wallace is saying here.) As Heart of America effectively, if sloppily, communicates, bitterness has become a tool and a weapon in our lives.

Wallace is a playwright/poet, or poet/playwright, and sometimes she can't resist pulling the inner poet out onstage through her characters. What redeems the production is that somehow, even as time lines and images proliferate, she comes up with five well-defined, appealing, and sometimes frightening characters. Against this nightmarish and chaotic backdrop, they somehow flourish in a particularly American milieu.

And the actors really deserve extra credit for this one, because without strong performances this play would turn into a vague meditation on U.S. military adventurism. McCoy plays Craver's self-described Kentucky white trash with easy, affable enthusiasm, and without slipping into sentimentality. Strain maintains a sense of subdued dignity as Craver's Palestinian-American lover, as Remzi floats around in first-generation immigrant limbo, trying to find anything worth hooking on to: love, family, the military, and, now that he's back in the Middle East, his parents' culture. Acevedo contributes a forceful performance as Remzi's potty-mouthed, cynical, blunt, but deeply empathetic sister. And Thi Pham rises above her character's role as U.S. imperialism's victim and delivers an aggressive, idiosyncratic performance. Even Getman adds a dose of awkward grace to a character who is knotted up in American machismo.

Five unique characters, in the end, are what remains when you leave this brave, complex production. But in this sometimes touching, always troubling play, the cast never loses touch with an elemental grace that, even in moments of horrendous cruelty, lives in the heart of America. And with this Rep Stage production, the Howard Community College-based company ends its provocative, sometimes mind-blowing 2007-'08 season.

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