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War, which has been translated for American audiences by Marita Lindholm Gochman, is about the plight of a family in some unnamed war-torn country. The multi-ethnic casting reinforces the concept that this family represents not any specific group of people but all of suffering humanity.
In a partially destroyed house (the stark set is by Van Santvoord), a mother (Rosalyn Coleman) struggles to survive with her two daughter, Semira (Flora Diaz) and Beenina (Ngozi Anyanwu). Both girls exhibit the aggression and hyperactivity of traumatized children. After a while it becomes obvious that Beenina is working as a prostitute. Semira may be a touch psychotic.
Soon the mother and her daughters are surprised, but not exactly delighted, by their missing father's return from the front. Although the father (Laith Nakli) is blind, he has somehow found his way home and wants to resume life with his wife and children. What he finds, however, is not exactly a loving family.
The mother, in his absence, has taken up with his brother, Uncle Ivan (Alok Tewari), a tall, handsome man who avoided work most of his life and has also avoided the war. The girls have been too brutalized to care about anyone.
But more significant, it seems the father was always a brutal man. Even though he is blind, he keeps trying to stay in control. He rages against his wife when she refused to oblige him sexually. He bullies his daughters. He makes sexual advances toward Beenina, convincing her he is just as bad as the men who pay for what he wants for free.
The father tells his horror stories of the war with anger, bitterness and a certain detachment typical of the traumatized. But clearly he is most comfortable with rage — rage against his wife, his daughters, his tormenters and especially his own helplessness. Nakli's performance is crushingly effective.
Uncle Ivan, who has come through the war relatively unscathed and also managed to secure the love of his sister-in-law, is a problematic presence. It's clear that he has provided comfort to his brother's wife, as well as the kind of love she never experienced with her husband. On the other hand, there is something smug and opportunistic about the man. It's hard to tell whether it's Tewari's interpretation or inherent in the character, but the uncle just doesn't come off as a sympathetic character.
After the father's return, Uncle Ivan wants the mother to leave her children with their father and flee with him. She is not eager to abandon her children. But somehow this reluctance seems to come more out of habit than love.
In fact, it is the troubled familial relationships that undermine or confuse the play's message. It's never clear what would have become of this family if there had been no war. Would the mother have stayed with the father? Would the children have grown up normal? What does it mean when the mother tells her husband, "You were blind long before you were blind."
It's possible War is trying to tell us that conflict begins at home and war is only a reflection of neurosis and brutality at the familial level. Or perhaps it is this brutality that creates people who are capable of war.
The effect of Noren's mixing of a family drama and depictions of the ravages of war is something like what would happen if you transported the characters in one of Tennessee Williams' plays to Bosnia. It's interesting but confusing.
The unrelenting horror of is at times relieved by a humor so dry and ironic it's hard to be sure whether Noren intended to be funny. When Semira says, "I'd put out [the dog's] bowl of water, and I'd call him. Then I'd remember that I ate him," should we laugh or cry?
In the end, despite its content, there's something non-engaging about this play. Although it certainly makes its point, it doesn't seem to do it much better than a well-written newspaper article.
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