War is a horrible business. Soldiers and civilians are killed and maimed. Human feelings are suppressed. Survivors' lives are destroyed.
We all know these things, but we prefer not to think of them. And they are easy to forget when wars are fought thousands of miles away, seen only in brief film clips.
In the Heart of America, a powerful play by Naomi Wallace, is designed to keep us from forgetting.
In the current production at Rep Stage, fine direction by Kasi Campbell and superb performances by five young actors add to the play's impact.
On entering the theater, the audience sees a stretch of sand, a dugout and a duckboard walk. An ordinary American bedroom sits on a higher level. The contrast, created by set designer Dan Conway, is significant.
As the action begins, scenes merge into each other. Time and space are fluid. Sometimes we're in 1991, sometimes in 1968, sometimes in Kentucky, Iraq, Georgia or Vietnam.
Characters are introduced, realistic but not necessarily real.
Fairouz and Remzi Saboura are Palestinians. Their family, uprooted when Israel was founded, moved to America and settled in Atlanta.
Fairouz (Dacyl Acevedo) is full of hate. She clings to her Arab identity. Her brother Remzi (Alexander Strain) has grown up as an American. He joins the Army in 1991 and is sent to the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War.
His buddy is Craver Perry (Brandon McCoy), a working-class kid from Kentucky. Craver has an almost sexual obssession with weapons - their names, their specifications, their capabilities to kill and maim. The fact that they will be used against flesh-and-blood people doesn't seem to enter his mind.
Lieutenant Boxler (Tim Getman) of the U.S. Special Forces is the embodiment of the warrior spirit. Lue Ming (Tuyet Thi Pham) is a soldier, too, a Viet Cong officer. She survived the My Lai massacre, but her 3-year-old daughter was killed.
There is no plot, no linear story. Situations unfold before the audience one after another. Themes keep recurring.
Fairouz is not sure if Remzi is alive or dead. Having had no answers from the Army, she seeks out his Army buddy, now back home, but Craver doesn't want to rake up unpleasant memories.
Remzi and Craver psych themselves up for combat, visualizing their deaths, the deaths of buddies, the finding of the bodies.
Tough, insensitive Lieutenant Boxler gives Remzi and Craver a lesson in brutal conduct toward prisoners. He also awakens Craver's memories of his father, a coal miner whose lungs were destroyed but who had to keep working. His purpose is to make Craver angry. It doesn't matter what he is angry about; anger makes for a better soldier.
In the midst of the campaign, Remzi and Craver have a homosexual affair.
Lue Ming is looking for Lieutenant Calley so she can confront him about My Lai. Lieutenant Boxler mutates into Calley.
Lue Ming describes the massacre from her point of view, Calley from his.
Having seen combat, Remzi is becoming disillusioned, questioning the war and shirking his duties. Fairouz finally learns what became of him, and it is not pretty.
The significance of many things is left for the audience to ponder:
Fairouz has a deformed foot. Her brother Remzi had tried unsuccessfully to cure it; Craver finds it erotic. Was it congenital or the result of violence in her childhood?
Craver stands on his head several times during the play; Lue Ming does it once. Why?
In the Heart of America asks its audience to endure a great deal. The names that soldiers give to the enemy to dehumanize them occur frequently in the dialogue.
The characters describe and sometimes depict horrifying events - prisoner interrogations, summary executions, massacres of civilians, desecration of enemy corpses, beatings of soldiers by fellow soldiers.
Yes, it is repellent, but anyone who sees the play will find it harder to take casually the day's war news.
Rep Stage is presenting Naomi Wallace's In the Heart of America through June 29 in the Studio Theatre (formerly called the black box theatre) at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. There will be a post-show discussion tonight and June 13 and a preshow lecture at 1 p.m. tomorrow. Reservations: 410-772-4900 or www.repstage.org.