Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Also see John Lariviere's review of American Buffalo
The first surprise is that the audience sits on the stage creating a very intimate experience. With a blank stage, radio reports play about the Bosnian conflict. As that dies down, a fairly meaningless interchange ensues between an elegantly dressed J.S. and a nervous interviewee, Melissa. Ethnic music plays, and J.S.'s elegant table and chairs are swept away leaving a billowing fabric, a tent of sorts, and two cots. They are now in Bosnia. The rest of the play happens in short scenes using cots, crates, chairs, and benches as props. Director Genie Croft and Technical/ Lighting Director, David K. Sherman, must have agreed that simplicity works. They leave the acting to speak for itself - and it does.
The war-torn refugees sit on benches in their first "group therapy" session. Some, like Jelena, Azra, and Seada, look more ethnic, others simply look tired, haggard in clothes that you and I might wear on a do-nothing Sunday. Each one responds differently to the newcomers. Zlata (Kathy Ryan-Fores) ignores them. Nuna (Meredith Lasher) welcomes them with childlike innocence and curiosity, interested in understanding more about America. Jelena (Lacy Carter) is warm and charming, willing to please and make everyone happy, talking about everything from sex to booze. Azra (Elayne Wilks) goes from a worn smile to nostalgic tears and Seada (Jacqueline Laggy) clings to J.S. as a surrogate mother and to her baby Donna in her arms. They need J.S. more than they want to admit. Melissa is less interested in their humanity and more in their story so she can add it as a chapter in her book, shoving the microphone aggressively, without feeling, in their faces at the worst moments.
They find that war has changed everyone here. It has changed a vibrant Jelena's husband from a gentle lover into an abuser and left her in desperate angst, acting out to hide her unhappiness. It has turned Zlata, once a nurturing doctor, into a hardened and defiant stone. It has made the old farming woman, Azra, with her scarf wrapped tightly about her neck, ready to die as she reminisces about her old friend Blossom, her gentle cow. Nuna's bubbling curiosity and pop culture references hide the fact that she is torn in two, a mixed-blood in a world of ethnic cleansing. Seada is the real tragedy. When her dramatic story is revealed, everyone is affected, including the audience. Each woman reveals the atrocities of war as those who were once neighbors attacked them, killing and raping and taking what was most precious to them, leaving them without their country, without their home and without purpose. They warn that America is not immune and that this can happen to anyone.
Eventually, war even changes those who hoped to escape its grip, those who hoped to run in and out, recording it, not being engrossed in it. War and its outcome have a funny way of trapping everyone. The new friendship between the young writer and psychiatrist even crumbles under the circumstances. J.S. finds her mask of civility fall away as she becomes all heart while Melissa has to run away from the terror in order to not be changed by it.
The acting keeps together what could be a hard to grasp plot for Americans far away from the war-torn region of Bosnia. No one necessarily stands out, although Jacqueline Laggy (Seada) certainly had the most challenging and dramatic role and conquered it brilliantly. The rest of the refugees were excellent, very focused, which can be difficult when talking about missing your cow, etc. The accents seemed right on and consistent. When their underlying feelings were revealed, the result was heart breaking thanks to their very well-developed characters and right-on motivations. Linda Bernhard warmed into her performance as J.S., starting out over-embellishing her elegance and politeness and that big toothy smile (she has great teeth). At the end, again she returned to the sappiness to fit in with the sappiness of the script ending. But we felt her connect with the refugees through the body of the play and as she did, we connected with her and she was as real as anyone, natural and familiar. Lela Elam (Melissa) overacted to a certain degree, emphasizing her words over her feelings. Even though her character was supposed to be unattached, her actions often seemed unnatural, staged. Even someone with a wall built up around their heart has real feelings. We saw that with Kathy Ryan-Fores as Zlata.
The beginning and ending of this play are fluffy and overly poetic additions that Ensler must have felt needed to tie it up and make it the perfect package but the middle is bittersweet enough and well worth tasting, as sweet as a broken heart. Caution: This play will make you feel and wonder how many women have suffered such atrocities. Reports say as many as 50,000.
Necessary Targets is playing until August 29th in the Lehman Theater, Building 5 at the Miami-Dade College North Campus, 11380 NW 27th Avenue