nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 26, 2011
In 2004, Alice is a military interrogator at Guantanamo Bay, nearing the end of her tour and preparing to go home to Texas and get married. By day, she performs her job with gusto, and to the fullest extent of the law, with her ultimate goal to get her prisoners to “stop believing”: “We gotta…make it matter whether they live or die. What we gotta do is, damn their souls.” Then the Pentagon approves a technique called “Invasion of Space by a Female”—which, for Alice, amounts at the very least to sexually taunting and harassing her assigned prisoner: Bashir, detainee number 176, a Pakistani man arrested in Afghanistan in 2001. By night, she swallows pills by the handful to guard against remembering what she’s done.
Fifteen years later, Alice has built a life that’s as far as possible from everything she experienced at Gitmo. She married her hometown sweetheart; they’ve moved to a new part of the country, and her best friend from childhood, Riva (who also served at Guantanamo with Alice, as a medic), has followed them there and become part of the family. Alice has a flower shop and her husband, Lucas, has a greenhouse. They’re raising a bright, inquisitive teenaged daughter, Rhiannon, to whom Alice never talks about her military service. But Rhiannon’s starting to get old enough to ask some difficult questions—and then Bashir hears Alice interviewed on a radio gardening program and comes to find her, appearing like a specter from the darkest moments of her past, and wanting something impossible. And what Alice refuses to remember, Bashir is unable to forget; his memories of every detail about Alice—the sound of her voice, the smell of her gum and brand of cigarettes—haunt him.
The theme of memory, of how we deal with who and what we once were, is central here—all the adult characters devote so much energy to walling off their pasts from their presents that they’re barely able to function. Lucas and Alice have tried for years to pretend that if they just don’t talk about Alice’s time as a soldier and Lucas’s as a junkie—Lucas burned Alice’s army gear and tattooed sunflowers over his own track marks—they’ll be able to become “a family whose biggest worr[y] is what to do with the root vegetables in their CSA basket.” Alice asked Riva never to talk about Gitmo, to let her be a “good mom”—and Riva, who’s left her own family behind in Texas to be part of Alice’s, and who will never talk about her own lost father or her own immigrant childhood, is happy to agree. Bashir, meanwhile, is so crippled, both emotionally and physically, by his time as a prisoner that he refuses to see his own daughter until “she can see me strong. Healthy.” Even Rhiannon, who doesn’t know what’s in her mother’s past, is haunted by it, linking her questions to dark impulses she doesn’t know what to do with or how to explain.
One of the boldest—and most disturbing—things in both Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s writing and the performances is the way characters come most vividly alive when they are forced to tap into their darkest emotions and memories, to grapple with the things they’re trying to repress. We see heat as Alice (Danielle Skraastad) becomes invigorated by her most aggressive interactions with Bashir, both in Guantanamo and after, and to a lesser extent in Lucas (Thom Rivera), when Bashir shows up on their doorstep and Lucas challenges Alice to finally tell Rhiannon some of the truth about her military service. We see it as Bashir (Laith Nakli) reprises his guard/detainee relationship with Alice and in the enormously contained Riva (Maha Chehlaoui) when Bashir pressures her to talk about her childhood in Iraq. We see it constantly in Rhiannon (the remarkable Emma Galvin) as she tries to make sense of her world and often ends up damaging those around her.
The piece delves unflinchingly into murky psychological territory, in a timely way, and its emotional arc is undeniably powerful. On a purely structural level, I don’t think it’s as successful—though it hardly matters. Occasionally, I found the story overplotted or exposition-heavy, a little too packed with symmetries and densely layered back-stories.
I think it’s partly because the production is so stark and striking that I wish the script were pared a little closer to its essentials dramaturgically. Director Tea Alagic, set designer Scott Bradley, and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau work together beautifully to create tableaus etched in harsh light (and shadow—the way Alagic works characters’ shadows into the blocking is something I’ve never been aware of before) against bare walls and floor, with only a handful of bright physical objects—a bunch of yellow roses; an inflatable globe in rich pastels; an orange prisoner’s jumpsuit.
And whatever my quibbles, I’ve been thinking about the questions raised by Lidless for days now: What responsibility do we take for our past—even the parts of it we don’t remember—and how do we navigate that responsibility in the present? Is any kind of reparation truly possible for unforgivable deeds? What do we owe our children—honesty or protection? Is there damage that cannot be healed, and who has to pay for that? How badly are human relationships warped by secret-keeping? And, perhaps most frighteningly, how do we deal with the parts of the human spirit that thrive on degrading and being degraded, on the complex dependency between the two?