It is not going out on a limb to observe that the United States' three most recent large-scale military interventions (Vietnam once, Iraq twice, combined record 1-1-1) have involved considerable damage and loss of life to the countries with which we have meddled. We've also done a number on ourselves (and our allies), in matters that go deeper even than loss of life, into the nature of a nation's soul.
Judith Thompson's Palace of the End is a harrowing look at the fallout from the most recent muddled decade. Its series of three monologues, delivered without an intermission, present varied perspectives on the knot of Gulf War II, each relentlessly discomfiting and existentially nauseating.
In the first, Emily Zimmer portrays a pregnant U.S. soldier who has been relegated to a desk job while she awaits the outcome of her conviction for involvement in torture at Abu Ghraib (Lynndie England's ears are burning). She recounts dismal childhood memories of "roach shit on my toast," then perks up at memories of good times at the Iraqi prison, where she was able to put the "apes" in their proper place.
Zimmer strikes a proper balance between her character's vile behavior (and her lame self-justifications for it), and deeper dimensions that lend her shades of sympathy. She is the malleable tag-along to brutality, from childhood onward, the weak-minded toady of sadistic ringleaders, scarcely equipped to handle her pangs of conscience. We're reminded, of course, that the architects of Abu Ghraib remain free, while its low-level minions languish in prison and ignominy.
Patrick Bailey then tackles the role of David Kelly, the British weapons inspector who eventually revealed that he had been asked to cook the books on Iraq's WMD threat, then followed up on his whistle-blowing by apparently killing himself. Bailey's Kelly is appropriately reserved and wistful as he endures the final night of his life, staring into oblivion and gently wondering at the grand web of moral bargaining that placed him in this position.
Perhaps Kelly's most chilling line is his agony over the conflict entailed in "knowing and pretending you don't." Bailey delivers it with a tight fatigue, a dying family man describing the burden on his own spirit (although it's hard not to detect Thompson aiming the sentiment at her audience as well).
The final monologue is delivered by Taous Claire Khazem, next to a simple chair-and-table and tea setup. In the first two scenes we have had mention of things difficult, if not outright painful, to bear. Now we hear too much.
Yet of course we must listen: This woman's plight, based on that of a real Iraqi woman, bears the shadow of every wrong perpetrated in her country. In generally bright tones at first, with subtle asides that evoke a subversive spirit, Khazem's character tells the story of being arrested as a member of the Communist Party during Saddam's reign (she takes great pains to convince us that all the groovy people were party members, not humorless Stalinists).
What follows is an unforgettable, terrible story, the details of which are hard to shake. Khazem glides through the horror with precision and dignity, leaving us with the information that this tortured and permanently damaged woman met her ultimate demise from American bombs in the first Gulf War.
Director Wendy Knox's small-scale staging focuses on text and texture; here they both lead to disturbing conclusions. This is who we are, the work tells us. It is not all we are, but these acts and this history are ours: as a people, as a species. There are times when small graces are no consolation at all.