Andhow! Theater Company, based in the East Village's spacious Connelly Theater, is well known for the intricate sets and high production values that space allows, and for producing stylistically experimental, heartfelt new plays. Its premiere of Chicago playwright Laura Eason's Area of Rescue is no exception. The moment you see Neal Wilkinson's set, you know this piece takes place in another world. Outside a sumptuous glass and metal mansion, trees without leaves stretch into the proscenium from a yard covered with barren rocks. The mansion's doors slide straight up into invisible sockets in the walls, suggesting architecture on Star Trek's Spaceship Enterprise or maybe Lost in Space. The latter title describes Eason's characters exactly.
In a futuristic dystopia inspired by a post-9/11 "national security" culture, freethinker Gordon (Arthur Aulisi) and his family get lost in their home and their home country, places that, as the play progresses, change beyond recognition. The play opens with Gordon and his 10-year-old daughter, Hetty (Kiki Hernandez), mourning his wife and her mother, Lily, on the day of Lily's funeral. The somber occasion is interrupted by the tactless neighborhood gossip, the widowed Ida Henri (Maria Cellario), and young "serviceman" Ivo (Omar Evans), who is courting Lily's sister Mia (Jackie Chung).
Questions immediately arise. How did Lily die? Whose fault is it? And why are Ida and Ivo so curious about the gruesome details?
Meanwhile, Hetty's world is about to be rocked by another cataclysm: the trees outside the house, already "stripped" of their leaves for reasons of "security," are scheduled to be felled completely to make way for an "area of rescue," a sort of terrorism shelter whose design, Hetty points out, concentrates people in an enclosed space without keeping the terrorists out.
As in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, which Area of Rescue is strongly reminiscent of, regime change is inevitable. The destruction of Hetty's trees happens concurrently with increasing threats to Gordon's personal safety and, consequently, to hers.
Eason's dystopian world constantly references issues in contemporary American politics. The government is a theocracy, and all inhabitants wear ID cards color-coded for "religion." Homosexuality is totally taboo. Abortion, even of "dead" fetuses that would be stillborn, is illegal. As a result, orphanages are filled with congenitally disabled children—a situation that happened in reality in Nicolae Ceauşescu's Romania after that dictator's abolition of birth control and abortion.
Gordon's family employs, if that is the right word, an unpaid servant named Alleah—a name that reads like the Jewish name Leah and sounds like the Muslim "Alia." Played by Abby Royle, Alleah must work as a slave for 11 years before being granted citizenship so she can choose to leave the home. Gordon's collusion with slavery complicates his character intriguingly, and that of his daughter, who never questions the morality of Alleah's enslavement.
Directed with a haunting naturalism by Jessica Davis-Irons, Area of Rescue features a few standout performances in a large but cohesive cast. As Hetty, Hernandez, a 10-year-old student making her professional theater debut, is smart and vulnerable, but never precious. If only Dakota Fanning and nearly every child I've seen in a movie lately could take acting lessons from her. Arthur Aulisi invests Gordon with a quiet, cautious anger that eventually boils over at just the wrong (for this character) moment.
As Ivo, Evans is disarmingly friendly, at first, especially to Hetty. That makes him especially noxious later. I didn't quite believe in Mia's attraction to him, as Chung was more passionate in her trumpeting of the regime's maxims than in her declarations of love. But the script does not make clear what Mia likes about this particular serviceman, or whether she is dating him only out of fear. As Ida, the play's other stock villain, Cellario provides comic relief even as she hurts Gordon and his family.
Jill BC Duboff's sometimes trance-like, sometimes ominous, sound design enhances the atmosphere. Becky Lasky's stiff, puritanical, uniform costumes look as if they came out of the theocratic dystopia in Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale. They constrict the characters' movements and muffle the women's sexuality, forcing everybody to toe the party line.
As topical dystopias go, Area of Rescue is not nearly as innovative or chilling as either The Handmaid's Tale or Caryl Churchill's recent play Far Away. Some of Eason's writing is very heavy-handed. A New York theatergoing audience probably does not need to be convinced that fear of terrorism can create a paranoid "security state" and erode vital civil liberties. I felt that for much of this play, Eason was preaching to the choir.
However, at the most crucial moments, Eason's allegory is not only spot-on but cogently original. When Ivo and Mia talk about the mystery of death and the construction of the local area of rescue, Ivo reminds Mia that she thinks "there isn't an answer." Speaking of, respectively, terrorism and death, Mia responds, "To those things, not to these things."
A regime that knows the answer to the afterlife question but does not know how to stop terrorism is bad news. The brilliance of Area of Rescue lies in Eason's juxtaposition of those two facts to create horrific paradox and irony that transcends the preaching.