In the Heart of America
Also see Kevin's review of Betty's Summer Vacation
All is not fair in love and war! Love cuts deep like an open flesh wound while war is the salt that is put on that incision to keep it stinging. Naomi Wallace proves this in her tale, In the Heart of America, as the Sol Theatre Project closes its third season.
In the Heart of America was scheduled to open in June, but after two extended engagements of Stop Kiss and Sexual Perversity in Chicago, not to mention a critically-acclaimed Waiting for Godot, the Fort Lauderdale-based company had to push this production back a month, making this season Sol’s most successful yet. Unfortunately, this presentation closes the season with a subdued lull instead of the expected fireworks.
The play is set between two different eras: the first Gulf War of 1990 and the crux of Vietnam in 1969. A young Palestinian woman, Fairouz Saboura, is questioning an American soldier about the whereabouts of her brother, Remzi, who was in his first tour of duty. Craver Perry was with Remzi in the Gulf, but he is evasive with answers to Fairouz’s inquisition.
Wallace also opens plotlines as memories of Craver and Remzi come to life. Craver, from Kentucky, is considered “white trash” while Remzi is an American of Palestine descent. These are only labels as the young men grow closer, fall in love, and have a secret affair. Within this structure lies their commanding officer, Lieutennant Boxler, trying to train the duo for combat. Using their differences against them, Boxler pushes his men to the limit, telling them to harness their anger for the enemy. Boxler has issues of his own as a spirit imbues his body while another ghost is there to haunt him. The spirit of William Calley, who massacred more than 500 civilians at My Lai in 1968, is using Boxler as an vessel while Lu Ming is trying to hunt Calley down. Seems that Calley murdered her infant daughter in Vietnam. Lu Ming finds somewhat of an ally in Fairouz as they both search for answers leading up to some bitter confrontations.
Naomi Wallace was an established poet before she went into playwriting, and it shows throughout In the Heart of America. Like a boxer with quick feet, Wallace bobs and weaves through storylines trying to tie both wars together. Allegories aside, there is a lot of potent and powerful moments in this play that has to be recognized: Fairouz trying to connect with her brother through Craver; Craver’s guilt over Remzi’s fate; Calley and Boxler fighting over who reigns; while Lu Ming tries to find justice. Sadly, the quintet only shows specks of diverse range while the script is electric all the way through.
As Craver, Todd Bruno shows intensity and emotion. Perry is a wall of contradictions, yet Bruno shows Perry’s guilt weighing heavy on his soldiers because he actually loved Remzi. Haylee Elkayam runs a gamut of emotions as Fairouz. From concerned sister to angry foreigner, Elkayam sticks to her agenda; we believe that she wants answers because there is a void in her heart. Craver is the only one now who will give Fairouz peace. The chemistry between Bruno and Elkayam is emotional and moves like clockwork as they both try to put pieces together in a convoluted puzzle.
As Remzi, Sebastian Montoya lacks a passion that needs to be quenched by Craver. Montoya has no chemistry with Bruno as these men show a more platonic friendship than a passionate affair, making their duet scenes contrived. Montoya needs to loosen his inhibitions more so the scenes with Bruno can have more depth. Also reaching is Erryn Dalton’s portrayal of Lu Ming, the ghostly adversary to William Calley. Dalton is just not convincing as a Vietnamese. She has dancer-like agility as she moves across the stage, but putting on kimono-like apparel, a wig, and faux contact lenses makes the suspension of disbelief even more difficult. It’s only when she is paired with Jim Gibbons as Boxler, that she shows sparks of life.
Gibbons breaks the troubled Boxler down as a man, so mentally unstable for war that he uses his soldiers as lab rats so that he can be sheltered. Boxler has trouble figuring out which war is which. That’s only because Calley is raging inside of him so strongly to make Boxler non-existent. Gibbons is the key to making both men exist in this production. Gibbons’ presence is so strong that he makes the others around him use his energy to give out good, but limited performances.
The only flaws in Wallace’s script are the predictable confrontations and flawed conclusions. The bigger flaws in the production, however, are the two performances that just don't gel right. What does work is the set that Jim Gibbons and director Robert Hooker collaborated on to make Wallace’s story balance between fantasy and realism. The realistic canvas is played to the front as five drapes to the back represent doors that characters come out of to play; when all is said and done, they revert back through the drapes. Jeff Holmes’ sound design needs improvement as the bombs and bullets resonate like a cell phone.
In the Heart of America gives us a message that love and politics do not mend well. Naomi Wallace’s statement of love being stronger than war is beyond powerful and is fully recognized in her script, but Sol fails to convey that message. Robert Hooker makes great attempts at choosing challenging material for his audiences, but still needs to find the right batch of actors to bring the story to its full potentials. Let’s hope he find the right mix in the next production.
In the Heart of America plays through August 22nd at 1140 NE Flagler Drive in Fort Lauderdale. For tickets, please call (954) 525-6555 or www.Soltheatre.com.
SOL THEATRE PROJECT - In the Heart of America
Cast: Todd Bruno, Haylee Elkayam, Erryn Dalton,
Assistant Director: Jim Sweet
Set & Lights: Jim Gibbons and Robert Hooker
Directed by Robert Hooker
-- Kevin Johnson