nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
February 10, 2008
War, by Swedish playwright Lars Norén, is raw, brave, and engrossing. It is not for the faint-hearted, moral purists, or those who demand a redemptive ending to a brutal and bleak drama. I admire its honesty and commitment. And I suspect that the intended message of the play is how war can warp and diminish human beings fundamentally. I only wish that it gave us more hope that we can survive with our humanity intact, or even triumph and soar over the abyss of hell that is war anywhere.
War focuses on the story of one family, which is first revealed to us as three women. Semira, a 13-year-old who behaves like, and is treated as, a child much younger, is reluctantly being wiped with filthy water and rag by her Mother, who's telling her older daughter, Beenina, to fetch yet another pail. Their home is not much better than a jail cell—bedding on a cold dirt floor and a few scraps of bread whenever the government or foreign rations come in. The war is over, but the fight to survive has never ceased.
Semira brings up Father, who it seems was lost in the war. "He's dead," the unsentimental Beenina emphatically states. "How do you know?" The girl replies, "He is young like he was before."
And then Father walks back into their lives, to the shock of all three. He is worn and starving and now blind. Mother has no choice but to prompt her children to accept his return, although she herself has misgivings. She has been with her brother-in-law, Ivan, and her relationship with her husband was strained even before the war separated them. Father is not the same person everyone remembers. He soon finds out that the family he has been desperate to come back to has also been shattered by the war.
The way the play relentlessly peels away the layers of wartime trauma, to reveal the horror at its core, turns this into a more draining, yet less affecting, experience. But what troubles me most is how the script makes these survivors not care about much anymore, least of all each other. This in turn makes it hard for us to care about them. Father demands acceptance, even by force if necessary; Beenina runs away, and Mother seems more bothered by the fact that Beenina may have left with Ivan, who originally asked her to go with him. All have suffered unspeakable crimes, and they have every reason to act out against one another; but if we are to believe that love has kept them together, we need to see the evidence, or whatever traces are left, of that love.
The performances, directed by Anders Cato, are also problematic. The actors are clearly committed to their roles, I am just not sure that they fully inhabit them. A lot of lines are rushed or rendered flat. Only strong physical depictions elevate the emotional connections, especially with the barely suppressed rage of Laith Nakli's Father, and Flora Diaz's Semira, full of nervous energy and eagerness to be special and loved.
The play has an interesting flavor that speaks to its foreign origin. The work of composer/sound designer Eric Shim is hauntingly beautiful. Set design by Van Santvoord takes us to a vivid and distinctive place. Fight director David Anzuelo also makes great contributions.
This production has a lot to recommend it: an unflinching portrayal of lives ruined by war, avoidance of cheap ploys and easy answers, and a genuine sense of urgency. It attempts to bring about a fuller understanding of the hidden scars of war that may never heal, and in that respect it is a worthy reminder of all those who bear them.