Sue Cremin and Edoardo Ballerini in Honey Brown Eyes. Photo by Lia Chang.
BOTTOM LINE: An empathetic and unflinching look at war and its human consequences.
I'd never heard the phrase "honey brown eyes" before last week. I thought it might refer to a folk song by James Taylor — something wistful on an acoustic guitar. I couldn't have been more wrong. Stephanie Zadravec's play is a point blank depiction of war in all its brutal, dehumanizing horror. Thankfully it's also a story of humor, kindness and possible redemption.
From the moment the lights come up on Honey Brown Eyes, we are witnesses to violence. The setting is the Balkans in 1992, as Serbian militias are "cleansing" eastern Bosnia of Muslims. According to Zadravec, though "20,000 women were systematically raped…the genocide of this war was largely ignored and quickly forgotten." She's right. We here in the United States rarely feel the pain of the wars we wage. And though no Americans appear in the play (our direct involvement came later), our influence is felt in the relentless presence of American pop culture — rock music, sitcoms and even informercials.
Act 1 takes place in an austere apartment in the battered town of Visegrad, Bosnia. Dragan (Edoardo Ballerini), a young, gun-toting Serbian, harshly interrogates Alma (Sue Cremin), a Muslim woman, in preparation for her deportation or death. Though the two discover a significant and emotional past connection, the confrontation ends badly, and Act 1 closes on a note of ominous dread.
Act 2 moves to another spartan apartment during the Siege of Sarajevo. A feisty old woman Jovanka (the terrific Kate Skinner) cooks rice and tries to play Mahler cassettes while rockets explode outside. As she says, "I survived the last war in this place; I can make it through another." When a Bosnian resistance fighter, Denis (Daniel Serafini-Sauli) takes refuge there, the two form a powerful and immediate bond. The two stories intertwine, and though there is no happy ending, we are left with the feeling that the human instinct for kindness has not entirely disappeared.
Zadravec has succeeded admirably in her intention to write about "the day-to-day effects war has on ordinary people." Her characters are real and their stories are compelling. I especially like her way of normalizing each character with banal, yet telling, details. Branko (Gene Gillette) is a monster of casual cruelty but has a childlike fascination with the TV show "Alf." Eleven-year old Zlata (Beatrice Miller) copes by introducing herself as Rudy Huxtable, whose mother "wears a suit to work." Jovanka's love/hate relationship with her grandson, who is "fifteen, [a]nd smells it too" feels just right.
While the actors are all talented and work hard to live authentically in such extraordinary circumstances, they are hampered by a major design flaw: the set is shallow and placed almost all the way downstage. This proximity is a good idea in theory, as it brings the action right into the audience's laps. But sufficient depth and distance are necessary for emotional connection in the theater. And the narrow, horizontal spatial relationships that result make it hard for the actors to inhabit their world fully and believably.
Despite this, the production has a strong, almost hypnotic power. Zadravec is obviously writing about something that matters a great deal to her. War is a tragedy and a crime. Man's capacity for inhumanity is epic and enduring. But so is our affinity for resilience, mutuality and love. Until we can have peace, we can at least try to learn from our mistakes.
(Honey Brown Eyes plays at the Clurman on Theater Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, through February 6, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays through Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $25 in keeping with Working Theater's policy of keeping Off-Broadway admissions more affordable. For tickets visit Telecharge at 212.239.6200 or online at telecharge.com. $15 student rush tickets are available at the box office day of show. For more show info visit workingtheater.org.)