In smartly opportune fashion, Outward Spiral Theatre Company starts its 2003 season with Naomi Wallace's In the Heart of America, a disquieting love story set during the Gulf War. The 1994 play began previews at the Loring Playhouse on Wednesday, March 19, the night of the first attack in the latest U.S.-led war against Iraq. Those inaugural cruise missiles intended to "decapitate" Saddam were fired around the time Outward Spiral began Heart's second act for the first time in front of an audience. "If nothing else, it's timely," said director Jef Hall-Flavin during intermission a week later. Actually, it's quite a lot else: challenging, dense, sensual, and chilling.
The play centers on two outsiders stationed in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm. Craver Perry (Nick Condon) is a baby-faced redneck from Kentucky, as sanguinary as he is vulnerable. Sensitive Palestinian-American Remzi Saboura (David Joseph Regelmann) joined the army to piss off his family, and is an ambivalent soldier. The two fall in love after a courtship that's played with building eroticism and looming tension. In one scene, Remzi feeds Craver a date, trying to get his provincial partner to savor the exotic taste of the (forbidden?) fruit. It's one of several dangerous desert liaisons in which the threat of discovery looms over the couple's intimacy. Later, Remzi recites the text of a weapons manual to Craver, who melts over the jargon-filled prose as if it were a Baudelaire poem.
Under mysterious circumstances, Remzi never returned from the war. His sister Fairouz (Aamera Siddiqui), who as a child suffered a deforming, racially motivated attack, searches out Craver for answers. Also floating through the proceedings are two spectral, time-traveling figures: Jue Ming (Katie Leo), a probing Vietnamese woman whose family was murdered in the My Lai massacre of 1968; and Boxler (Galway McCullough), the dead soul of convicted and then paroled American lieutenant William Calley. (Without judging the health of Calley's soul, it seems worth noting that the man himself is very much alive.) McCullough's powerful voice and imposing physique make him ideal for the part. His barrel-chested bellicosity feels both terrifying and, sadly, timeless.
Following a flowing, nonlinear narrative, the play explores hate and violence in its peacetime and martial forms. In the long tradition of epithet adoption, the play's characters can only subvert the slurs hurled their way by embracing them. In this spirit, Craver's proudly delivered self-definition--"I am a white-trash-river-boy-Arab-kissing-faggot"--resounds like an alternate version of Jesse Jackson's inspirational slogan, "I Am Somebody."
A little over a decade ago, Twin Cities playwright, musician, and freelance writer Dwight Hobbes was a homeless crack addict. Shelter, being produced by Pangea World Theater at Mixed Blood Theatre, is based on Hobbes's stay in a downtown shelter, and looks at the Minneapolis homeless through the experience of three disparate characters. Hobbes's alter ego Keith (André Samples) is a college-educated father who's on the outs with his young son's mother and is struggling to resist crack. Checking into a downtown shelter, he winds up rooming with a drug dealer and pimp named Truck (a menacing Damon James) and the small-time criminal's beleaguered but hopeful moll Anjinette (Constance Anderson), whom Keith has previously/illegally/Biblically known.
Samples is a fine, ambiguous protagonist, and Anderson and James, though stiff in spots, give their characters a naked desperation that's both self-preserving and self-destructive. Though there's no shortage of action, director Dipankar Mukherjee's staging can drag. For example, a pained phone conversation between Keith and his son, lit by Mike Grogan with a flashing red spotlight that nicely suggests an edge-of-downtown phone booth, would be more effective if it were about half as long. Hobbes has a good ear for natural-sounding dialogue, though he could be accused of overindulging in colloquialisms (colorful expressions, like pots not available for pissing in, seem to be clanging around left and right, and sometimes make the characters sound a bit plastic). But despite some shortcomings, the play is a memorable and illuminating experience, especially for those of us who've been sheltered from the precarious world it frankly depicts.