Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Audra McDonald with Seth Rudetsky
Michelle Kholos Brooks' play Hostage is a tautly written drama that focuses on this meeting between mother and son and expertly shows both sides of the story while giving insight into the plight of both the Iranian students and the Americans involved. The play premiered last year in Los Angeles and makes its Arizona debut in an exceptional, thought-provoking production at iTheatre Collaborative that features a stellar performance by Marlene Galan Woods as Barbara Timm.
Brooks' play focuses mainly on the meeting between Barbara and Kevin and the interactions she had with the students in the Embassy in Tehran, as well as the aftermath the Timms' encountered when they returned home. While it is a fictitious recount of this factual meeting, Hostage proves to be a quite insightful study in peeling back our perceptions of the people at the center of this famous incident to show that there is much more to their stories than we first knew. While the protestors who took over the Embassy were portrayed in the U.S. as terrorists, the majority of them were highly educated students, some educated in the States. They were protesting against the Shah, who was recently overthrown and who used fear and his secret police to intimidate those around him, and who was allowed into the U.S. for cancer treatment. Brooks shows two of these students, including their famous spokesperson, Tehran Mary, and lets us understand the reasons behind their actions.
We also get a better understanding of Barbara Timm, a woman who knew that her job was to ensure her child's safety. She had to see him in person to tell him not to give up. She was viewed as a possible spy on both sides and was even harassed, with a constant mob outside her house, and called a traitor when she came back to the U.S. for speaking out against the actions of President Carter and other politicians who seemed to not be doing anything to ensure the hostages' release.
The play is not only insightful in showing the individuals behind the story but also intriguing in how Brooks poses some interesting questions. Did the Iranian students let Barbara in to see her son in order to use her for their political advantage, or were they just being humanitarians? Is it better to be patriotic and follow the beliefs of our elected politicians, or to do what you have to do in order to stay alive? But, while it is thought provoking, there is also a constant sense of danger and tension in the piece. Brooks also reminds us that, according to the Iranians, they are students, not terrorists, and the Americans aren't hostages but their guests. The students also comment that "we treat our guests well." With eerie dialogue like that and the constant presence of guns aimed at the Americans, the play continually reminds the audience that there is danger lurking and that you never quite know what passionate people may do for their cause.
The one-act, 85-minute play is smartly written with no extraneous material and it seamlessly shifts between scenes set in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and ones that take place later in the Timms' home in Wisconsin. This allows the piece to be fast paced, with no lengthy scene changes, and Brooks also uses the theatrical conceit of having individuals in both scenes provide a few choice comments on the action that takes place in the other locations. While this doesn't add to the realism of the play, it does provide some impactful commentary.
Christopher Haines' direction ensures the emotional impact of the scenes resonates. His actors are all adept in creating three-dimensional characters and in bringing an urgency and importance to the individuals they portray and the actions they make.
As Barbara, Marlene Galan Woods delivers a stunning performance of a woman who, she believes, is doing what any other mother would do to protect her child and ensure his safety. She creates a multi-dimensional woman, with nuance and layers, and the scenes she has with Jacob Nichols as Kevin are packed with emotion. With his pants constantly falling down because he's lost so much weight, Nichols projects the image of a boy who is lost and confused and who can't believe that his mother has come to see him. While he projects the right demeanor of a young man who has almost given up, and who says he's "just trying to get through this," his face lights up and his eyes sparkle with excitement when he's told that the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers has said he could throw out the first pitch at their first home game as soon as he returns home. It's a moving scene that shows how the littlest things can bring hope.
As Barbara's current husband Kenny and her ex-husband Richard, Glenn Parker and Walt Pedano, respectively, provide plenty of fireworks in the confrontations they have once Barbara and Kenny have returned home from Tehran. The dialogue for these scenes goes a long way to show the reasons Barbara and Richard got divorced and how the feelings of Americans at the time were greatly impacted by what they were being told about the situation in Tehran.
With perfect Iranian accents and an excellent combination of passion and anger, Elizabeth Broeder and Xavier Morris are perfect as the two students, Tehran Mary and Ebrahim. They both create characters who are full of nuance, which could make you question thoughts you had about anyone who is passionate about a cause that you may not personally believe in or fully understand.
The beauty of Hostage is that it shows how a woman went to Iran to ensure her son was safe but in doing so learned a lot about herself and her son's captors. It manages to show more than one side of a topic and the human inside each individual. While Brooks has Barbara comment that "it was so much easier when she didn't know so much" in reference to how, once she knew what the Iranian students were like, it impacted the way she viewed the situation, it is plays like this that make us realize the more we know about something the better off we all are.
iTheatre Collaborative's Hostage, through February 2, 2019, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E Monroe St., Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, visit www.itheatreaz.org.
Playwright: Michelle Kholos Brooks