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While there is much to be said about what is now, rather facetiously, referred to as "Gulf War I" (presumably the first in a series?), I can think off-hand of exactly three non-literary works to do so — two movies, and one play: Edward Zwick's intensely felt, Rashomon-like Courage Under Fire (1996); David O. Russell's splendid black comedy Three Kings (1999); and Naomi Wallace's 1995 exercise In the Heart of America.
Neither film, alas, dealt with atrocity as Wallace's does, though both are superior to it. Yet even here, in a play whose chief concern appears at first blush to be the infliction of atrocity on indigenous populations, the focus is largely on, not Iraq, but Vietnam. Wallace, whose drama opens the new Raleigh Ensemble Players season at Artspace Gallery II, glances fairly lightly off one major Gulf War incident (presumably the infamous "Highway of Death," where U.S. air forces massacred as many as 300,000 Iraqis withdrawing from Kuwait) and holds her big guns in reserve for a queer-bashing of two American soldiers by their fellows. Both are horrific, but as Wallace limns them, the events feel unrelated, especially given her use throughout the play of a young Vietnamese woman in search of Lt. Calley.
Worse, the playwright's poetic bent is at worst risible (the two soldier-lovers tip-toeing around their desire for each other by describing weapons systems in lovingly erotic terms) and at best — or perhaps, least worst — results in dialogue that sounds like scraps of Tennessee Williams pureed in a Cuisinart.
None of which is helped at REP by C. Glen Matthews's excessively busy direction. When not involved in a scene, the actors stand or kneel before a tie-dyed canvas backdrop in the approximate shape of a tent, which they touch and explore searchingly, running their hands up and down and along the gaps. Since due to deadlines I was unable to track down a copy of Wallace's play, I cannot state with any certainty whether this is the playwright's own dramaturgy, but I suspect it isn't. While Matthews is, often, an exceptionally brilliant director, his weakness for mucking about occasionally makes him seem like some sort of refugee from the Living Theatre. (There is one superb moment, when the lovers are parted and one of them propels himself backward on his belly down the scenic designer Joseph Brack's slanted central unit — an eloquent staging of violent loss.) If the text itself is compelling enough to produce, need the director impose unnecessary style upon it? And if it isn't, why bother producing it at all?
The performers give good account, however, and it is largely for the acting that interested parties should seek out In the Heart of America. Ryan Brock and Canady Vance do small marvels with under-written roles, while Rus Hames uncovers humanity where it is least expected. Tommy Hoang is even better as a Palestinian-American soldier belatedly wakening to his status as a perpetual outsider, and Brenda Lo is magnificent as the woman who may or may not be a survivor of the My Lai massacre, unearthing sharp gallows-humor from the corpse of horror.
Thomas Mauney's lighting designs are, surprisingly for this gifted artist, rather flat. And the production is beset, from beginning to end, by an endless loop of rhythmic "thuds" at intervals of two seconds each, courtesy of the sound designer Heather Willcox. Besides being obnoxious to the point of inducing madness, these continuous, incessant beats have the effect of rendering some of the dialogue inaudible, or at very least difficult to comprehend. I suppose if you wish to sabotage your own production, this is as good a method as any.
Warning: This play contains material that is both intense and adult in nature.
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents In the Heart of America Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 28-30, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 31, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Thursday, Nov. 3-4, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, Nov. 6, at 8 p.m. in Artspace Gallery II, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with valid ID and $12 seniors over 60 and military personnel), except pay-what-you-can performance Oct. 28 ($5 suggested minimum). 919/832-9607 and TTY 919/835-0624. Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/. Artspace: http://www.artspacenc.org/.