With the outbreak of ethnic violence in Iraq and now Kenya, Swedish playwright Lars Noren’s War, which examines the devastation of ethnic cleansing through the prism of one family’s experience, is timely. Yet relevance and social purpose do not always equal satisfying theater. Noren, whose work is widely produced and celebrated in Europe but rarely seen in the United States, was scheduled to direct this Rattlestick Theater’s production, but when illness prevented him, director Anders Cato and dramaturge Ulrika Josephsson, fellow Swedes, stepped in with mixed results.
Cato and Josephsson can’t seem to decide if they are staging a naturalistic drama or Brechtian social theater, with the actors and production team pulling in competing directions. Instead of stinging our conscience, this schematic play tests our patience, especially at 100 minutes with no intermission.
After two years in a prison camp in an unnamed land (presumably Bosnia) during an outbreak of ethnic conflict, a man (Laith Nakli) presumed dead returns home to his wife and two daughters, who have settled into a daily life marked by scarcity, rape and cruelty. The man, blinded by torturers, also proves blind to the changes that have occurred in his absence.
In the zeal to depict the brutalizing impact of war, all gentleness has been blasted from the play. In moments that don’t always ring true, one member of the family lashes out at another with vile obscenities, while every embrace contains an undercurrent of suppressed violence.
Making War memorable despite its flaws, Nakli is mesmerizing as the brutish father who is intent on reconciling with his family, even if it means imposing his will on them, and on regaining his place as head of the household despite his impairment. He burns with intensity while never shedding the empty gaze of sightless eyes.
Cato fails to elicit any consistency of style from the rest of the multi-racial cast. Alok Tewari, as Uncle Ivan, is the only actor to deliver a naturalistic performance. Flora Diaz, who is not up to the daunting challenge of believably portraying a 12-year-old, plays Semira as a high-strung, whiny child who twitches and fidgets constantly. Her unlikely older sister is the boyish Ngozi Anyanwu, whose brash Beenina has the demeanor of an urban American youth. Rosalyn Coleman, a star of August Wilson plays on Broadway, is disappointing in the pivotal role of the mother. Always angry and sullen, she never demonstrates the emotions that bind her character to her daughters, the father, or his brother.
Noren deftly exploits the theatrical possibilities inherent in one character’s inability to see the others – from mistaken identities to deliberate deceptions. But War, translated with occasional awkwardness by Marita Lindholm Gochman, would have benefited from some modulation of tone (a short episode about the family dog’s untimely death hints at how dark humor might have been effectively deployed) and a plot with more unanticipated turns.
Scenic designer Van Satvoord evokes this war-torn wasteland with a colorless, austere set containing a handful of threadbare household objects. Costume designer Meghan E. Healey does serviceable work with flashes of ingenuity, such as the bright yellow bra straps visible underneath Beenina’s shabby clothes.
Lighting designer Ed McCarthy curiously ignores the play’s opportunities for innovative lighting. The lighting remains largely unchanged, whether the family is sitting out in the hot or inside their dwelling without electricity during the evening. Indeed, in one key scene, when the blind man asks his brother if it is morning or night, the audience is at a loss to know the correct answer.
The use of a multiracial cast and the decision not to name Bosnia may have been intended to widen the play’s significance to all genocide in our age. Instead, these tactics backfire by robbing the play of the specificity of time, place and culture that might have given it the resonance of authentic history – and the power to move its audience.