The American mind is in a state of disconnect. While everyday life for most carries on as it always has, we're informed daily that we live in wartime. Into this perception gap leaps the world premiere Flags at Mixed Blood Theatre, a Greek- style tragedy set in Middle America. It's a production that powerfully mines heartbreak, loss, and disillusion to universalize the Iraq war--and the concept of sacrifices worthy and wasted--into a dispatch from the American conscience.
The inherent problem of political drama is the potential for sagging into polemic. Playwright Jane Martin, generally thought to be a pseudonym for Jon Jory, uses the Greek tragedy and chorus to keep the focus on Eddie Desmopolous (Chris Mulkey), a scruffy sanitation worker with a bum hip. Eddie's wife, Em (Karen Landry, Mulkey's real-life spouse), lives for her family and is enjoying better days since Eddie licked the bottle. Their favored son Carter, a tank commander in Iraq, is due home. Em has picked up a welcome sign from Kinko's, and Eddie is a pro-war guy who has no problem with his son taking care of the "fuckin' Muslims."
When Carter is arbitrarily kept in Iraq for four more months, good cheer drains out of the couple. Eddie gets angry, while Em is visibly haunted. With this first twist, director Steve Pearson's cast tightens, almost closing ranks against the events to come. Their anxiety is leavened by wisecracking neighbor Benny, played with weary warmth by Joe Minjares.
Benny's the one who initially sees a soldier and military chaplain coming down the Desmopolous driveway--a terrible, chill- inducing moment. With Carter gone, Mulkey's performance becomes increasingly volatile and eventually unhinged. Eddie's a bastard to bad son Frankie (played with earnest humility by André Samples), a wanna-be jockey with a druggy history. When Eddie learns gruesome details about Carter's death, he climbs onto the roof of his house in the middle of the night and hangs a flag--albeit upside down, a standard distress signal.
Mulkey finds unexpected corners in Eddie, who realizes how little he grasps his own veteran past, his wayward son, and the way Carter was taken from him. Even his act of dissent lacks premeditation, and he resists defusing the initial controversy that erupts. When Eddie is quoted in the press demanding an explanation from the commander in chief, Dubya Bush calls him on the phone--it's an encounter that devolves when the president fails to apologize (go figure) and Eddie explodes in the presence of a reporter. Soon his protest is on the cover of "Time fuckin' magazine," and the Desmopolous clan becomes the target of hatred, blows, spit, and gunfire--all in the name of flag, country, and war.
There's a subplot about an ambitious politician, a digression that doesn't serve much purpose, and the chorus itself speaks in a cadence that's at times too rapid and hard to understand. But it's the tragic form that makes the entirety work. Eddie's flaw is in not understanding what he's doing, and then his unwillingness to change course or back down from what he's started. Eddie's failings are lent an almost intolerable poignancy by his former chauvinistic notions of patriotism.
The play's final event is telegraphed about a minute before it happens, after Eddie has torched every avenue of escape. His alienation of Em and his warped, 11th-hour embrace of Frankie reveal the antihero's eroded strength and reason. The audience has time enough to tense up and then watch the inevitable transpire.
The politics in Flags aren't hard to decode, but the play maintains credibility because Eddie never lectures, and he doesn't come to any specific political conclusions. He simply doesn't know what the hell's happened to him, or why he's responding the way he is. Buffeted and rocked by events and happenstance, he's a flawed man who reacts in the worst possible way to things that shouldn't have happened. Flags has the feel of an event, a moment of connection between the stage and the audience that seeks to shake up our collective dislocation without pandering, preaching, or playing to what we want to hear. I hope this work loses relevance in the immediate years to come. For the moment, it's brave, deeply compassionate, and, most importantly, very good drama.