For the first Adobe Rose Theatre Productions performance since the company relinquished its brick-and-mortar space to the International Shakespeare Center, ART stays in its established lane. Always a fan of offering up modern political works that deal closely with current events; Hostage falls in line with previous offerings like Building the Wall, The Revolutionists and Time Stands Still; the new play from Michelle Kholos Brooks perhaps isn't as well-written as other political productions we've seen from ART, but still manages to paint a passable picture of America in 1980 at the height of the Iran Hostage Crisis.
The play is the true story of Wisconsin housewife Barbara Timm (portrayed by Maureen Joyce McKenna), whose son Kevin (Koppany Pusztai) is being held hostage across the globe by Iranian students Tehran Mary (Nadine Pineda) and Ebrahim (Aidan Viscarra). When 52 United States citizens were taken hostage, Timm took it upon herself to fly straight to Tehran and demand to see her son; this play portrays her interactions with Kevin as well as the tumult her actions caused in her home state. On the home front, Barb spars with her ex-husband and Kevin's father, Richard (Dan Burkarth), while allying closely with her current husband Kenny (Brent Black).
The stage is divided in two by scenic designer Vincent Faust, with American and Iranian flags hung behind a sheer scrim to denote which half of the stage is which; Barb also covers her head when she interacts in Iran and uncovers it as she seamlessly transitions back to America, making it easily discernable where the action takes place.
A nice touch as the play rolls on is increasing interaction between the inhabitants of the two halves of the stage. As conversations more and more involve all six characters onstage, Iranians calling out to Barb as she is supposedly in America and Mary often able to hear discussions going down in the Wisconsin living room, the audience is drawn into Barb's experience of being torn between two halves of the world.
While that device in the script was nicely done, unfortunately, the piece as a whole left a bit to be desired. We don't really get to deeply know any of the characters, least of all Timm, for whom a more vivid picture of her innocent, simple Midwestern background would have added much-needed dynamism to the character's sudden experience of being thrust into an international spotlight. We are told Barb and Kenny's political affiliations (conservative), but are never shown the conflict of suddenly finding themselves defending the Iranian rebels and criticizing their own government's actions against Iran.
In the program, a short quote from playwright Brooks declares, "… perhaps there are lessons we can gather from the idealism of an everyday person, a mother, having the courage to stand outside politics out of love for her son."Interesting quote from a writer who seemed to try to throw political references into her script as often as possible. Aside from almost constant references to baseball and religion, and Richard accusing Barb of sympathizing with terrorists simply for pronouncing Iran correctly (she goes from Eye-ran to Ee-rahn after her visit), many points in the show seem shoehorned in as allegories or foils about modern times, disguised as casual side comments. For example, Barb at one point claims, "I'm a Republican, not an imperialist!"—cue snickers from audience. She also later quips, "I'm going to have to rethink my support of the Second Amendment," speculating about what might happen if the country were overwhelmed with guns in the hands of thousands of people with emotional hair-triggers and political loose cannons. Yes, it all sounds familiar. We get it.
This script was an ambitious project, yes, and especially so because it tried to cram so much history and emotion into only 75-ish minutes. It would have been better served to run twice as long and really dive deep into the characters so we could care a little more about them. It's one of the dangers of putting on brand-new scripts, as Adobe Rose so loves to do; often they are bright, glittering new gems, but sometimes you get one that struggles. And here we are.
The actors here put forth their best efforts despite their written circumstances, though ham-fisted monologues and stilted dialogue did cheapen the performances of actors whose work I have positively swooned over in previous shows.
Pineda, whose staid portrayal of Tehran Mary featured excellent facial expressions and clear delivery, wasn't allowed to impress as much as she did in this summer's brilliant Fun Home at the Playhouse. Brent Black, here playing Barb's second husband Kenny, also impressed me in Fun Home, but here was lent no tension by the script; further, out-of-place jokes and levity as mobs gathered outside their home seemed either entirely unrealistic, or just lacking commitment from Black and McKenna.
Pusztai, one of my favorite actors to break a leg in Santa Fe right now, is a sympathetic and well-timed Kevin, bringing a few much-needed laughs to the heavy scenes in which his mother tries in vain to negotiate with his keepers. His brief flares of chemistry with captor Ebrahim are bright spots as well, though Viscarra's touch-and-go accent sounds a bit Irish at times.
Burkarth's portrayal of Barb's first husband, Kevin, is perhaps the strongest in the show, largely because the script did not attempt any acrobatics with the role. He is straightforward and consistent: Some folks may call him disaffected, others would argue that he was perhaps shut out by Barb. Either way, it's clear that he has not been in Kevin's life in any real way since the couple's split, and the frustration and flailing impotence expressed by Burkarth are effective and relatable in the role.
For a play that claims to transcend politics and present humanity, there sure are a lot of politics at play here; overall, it's a glimpse into a significant episode in America's past that certainly deserves the theatrical treatment, but perhaps calls for even more than Brooks gave it here. If there's ever a Hostage v. 2.0 that runs a couple hours or more, I'll be first in line to see what's uncovered.
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays through Oct. 26; 3 pm Sundays through Oct. 27. $10-$25. The Swan, 1213 Parkway Drive, 629-8688; tickets here.
Sunday Oct. 20 matinee features a talk-back with Michelle Kholos Brooks and Barbara Timm.