You pretty much can’t throw a rock in New York without hitting a marquis advertising an Iraq-themed film or play. While Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End echoes a few notes we’ve heard before, it achieves a level of grace and beauty that is rare among current artistic efforts. It is refreshing to have a show that is poetic without being preachy. Three absolutely enthralling actors deliver one roughly 30-minute monologue apiece and their words paint an exceptionally vivid picture of the far reaches of the war. The characters are Lynndie England, the American soldier photographed next to tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib, David Kelly, the British weapons inspector who allegedly killed himself after revealing that his government exaggerated the threat of WMDs, and Nerhjas Al Saffarh, a Communist who was tortured along with her children by Saddam Hussein’s secret police. In the play notes, Thompson admits that news accounts of these figures were merely a springboard for her fictionalized imaginings of them.
This format doesn’t work so well with the portrait of England. Perhaps it is because this scandal is so well known and Thompson goes for the easy explanation. Her sketch of England is extremely similar to the popularized caricature of the American soldier: ignorant white trash whose violent impulses are suddenly given free reign.
Although this character may lack a third dimension, actress Teri Lamm smoothly conveys all sides to the Private: cocky soldier, defensive scapegoat, senseless hick, and even scorned lover. On its own, the monologue is an interesting exploration of a person who is just a devilish face and a thumbs-up to many of us. But after being wowed by the other exceptional stories in the play, it pales by comparison.
The play shifts into higher gear with David Kelly. He’s already dying when we meet him. Rocco Sisto offers a wonderfully reserved performance as a soft-spoken scientist. The playwright depicts Kelly as a wise, yet self-consciously cowardly man. He offers poignant deathbed observations (“When we are young, our death is impossible... Part of the... salve of aging, is that our death starts to make a sort of sense”) and equal amounts of justification and condemnation of the lies he agreed to tell. When he speaks of how soldiers murdered an Iraqi family he’d befriended, Sisto makes Kelly so full of shame that he can’t reach an adequate volume. It ends up sounding like he’s telling a bedtime story, which makes his tale all the more horrifying.
The lyricism of Thompson’s work is best showcased in the final monologue, delivered by a phenomenal Heather Raffo. She is a charm-machine with a motherly grin and playful demeanor (her jabs at linguistic differences between English and Arabic are adorable).
However, there is a weathered quality to Raffo’s delivery that hints at something darker. We find the root of this is Al Saffarh’s visit to the eponymous Palace of the End, a former castle transformed into a torture compound by Hussein. Her explanation of the ordeal she endured with her young sons is saturated with pride and pain, but never fear. She smiles as she recalls how her oldest was forced to watch her rape: “His eyes looked into my eyes only. So wise for fifteen.”
Thompson frames Al Saffarh’s entire account through a maternal lens. She makes for a fine domestic counterpoint to the belligerent England, who, in spite of her fatigue-covered baby bump, has no qualms singing out, “Flyin low and feeling mean. Find a family by the stream. Pick ‘em off and hear ‘em scream, Napalm sticks to kids.”
Al Saffarh remembers being pregnant when she was captured. She admits initially thinking that her captors would spare her because their culture would not permit the killing of a pregnant woman or a child. This is not the case. Kelly and England similarly expect for their people to protect them, but receive a harsh awakening as they are destroyed by their own sides. England is portrayed as a scapegoat for the Army and as an unfortunate product of a violent culture, while Kelly is bullied and threatened (and possibly killed, according to some theories) by the British government. It is a fitting touch for a play that demands that you look inward and question your own culpability.