The War at Home
Few new plays are this important and this beautiful, and fewer still are done this well.
Jonathan Lichtenstein's The Pull of Negative Gravity won the top prize for new writing at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is now premiering for American audiences simultaneously off-Broadway in New York and at the Mosaic Theatre in Plantation. Much can be said about this intimate tale of a Welsh family destroyed by the war in Iraq, but the first thing to note is that it's great theater, pure and simple.
The action is fast. The widowed Vi, whose husband drowned himself (possibly over the failure of their farm), lives with her sons Rhys and Dai until one joins the Royal Regiment of Wales and is called to war. Bethan, engaged to Dai but perhaps in love with his brother, spends her time ecstatically moving to the sound of Chinook helicopters transporting wounded soldiers to the hospital in which she works; she longs to fly herself. In a densely packed 100 minutes, The Pull of Negative Gravity touches on the effects of war at home, on suicide and euthanasia, on the sad realities entailed in running a farm, and on the sadder truths of a soldier's plight. Dai's return marks the heart of the play, and it is devastating.
Nightmarish in subject, The Pull of Negative Gravity is an actor's dream play, and the Mosaic cast is sterling: Michael Baugh, Elizabeth Dimon, Todd Allen Durkin, and Claire Tyler all give performances as naked as they are brave. Rich Simone's deceptively simple sets, Meredith Lasher's unassuming costumes, and Travis Neff's magical lighting admirably intertwine with Richard Jay Simon's pitch-perfect direction. The artistic director's touch is assured, mindful that only one false note could destroy the delicate harmonies of Lichtenstein's symphony of grief.
A coin toss acted out repeatedly on a sunny hilltop first suggests it will decide which of the two brothers will marry the lusty Bethan, but eventually dictates he who will in Iraq. Early on, with Dai already gone to war, the young fiancée disarmingly confesses, "All I want is to wake up in the morning with him and touch his face." Then briefly it seems she might get her wish: News of an ambush in Basra reveals two soldiers are dead; however, as Vi assures herself with desperate conviction, a phone call brings word Dai is wounded but alive, and he's coming home. The imagined homecomings -- one for each of the players in the soldier's stor -- follow the logic of a dream and show the proud young veteran in a kilt, covered in medals, bathed in the stage's gentle violet light. "I'm back," he tells his brother and mother. "I'm back," he tells his fiancée. Narrative lines in Lichtenstein's writing cross like strokes in an Escher drawing, matched emotion by raw emotion in Simon's shamelessly intense and exquisitely controlled staging. True hope hangs in the air. The young soldier must be all right. He has to be.
He's not, of course. To everyone's horrified disbelief, Dai's actual homecoming is pathetic. His injuries are never explained, but their effects are obvious: His motor control is erratic, his speech barely intelligible, his appearance a caricature of his dashing former self, his frustration and sadness unbearable. The wedding night that follows is drenched in a grotesque sort of cruelty that brings to mind the best of Samuel Beckett but void of the sense of hope and affirmation that echoes through the great Irishman's plays. "Kiss me," begs Dai of his bride Bethan. "I can't," she cries. "I can't." His touch nauseates her. When she runs to the sink to vomit, her paralyzed husband falls out of his wheelchair and tries to crawl to her, grunting and stuttering in pain: "Let me fuck you." She gives in, but the moment proves too much and Dai ejaculates prematurely on her rented wedding dress. She runs to the sink to clean it, leaving the young groom lying on the floor, crying, drooling, spent.
Here and elsewhere in The Pull of Negative Gravity, neither the playwright nor the director gives into vulgarity or bathos. The jagged structure of the play shuttles the characters and audience between the past and present, offering a dazzling embrace of life's intricate tragedies. Yet Lichtenstein's writing is straightforward, unsentimental, and resonant with elemental truths that keep it just off the edge of Grand Guignol. Todd Allen Durkin rightfully comes close to stealing the show as Dai, but his over-the-top performance is always horrifyingly real. Mike Baugh's Rhys also breaks hearts simply by standing still and listening, watching as his life unravels. For her part, Claire Tyler injects improbably sensual grace into the role of Bethan. As Vi, Elizabeth Dimon impresses throughout, especially as her character faces the impossible prospect of helping one of her sons die. The moment recalls the ending of Ibsen's Ghosts, and Dimon is electrifying.
To Lichtenstein's and Simon's immense credit, scene after harrowing scene depicting the intimate story of these shattered lives successfully portrays the enduring horror of war and the utter surprise of that horror as it is lived out by one family. No one could be ready for this; no one should be. At times the play recalls Coming Home, Born on the Fourth of July, and other tales of soldiers wounded in Vietnam, another war born of lies. Without once taking sides about the catastrophe in Iraq -- without bringing up politics at all -- The Pull of Negative Gravity manages to portray with angry clarity the brutal, ineffably sad reality of lives destroyed by a war as bogus as it is cruel.
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