7 December 2001: Ensler, Necessary Targets

Hartford Stage, world premiere.

An all-women play: an elderly American psychotherapist, “J. S.” (Shirley Knight)  and her “assistant,” a journalist, Melissa (Catherine Kellner), go to Bosnia (J. S. as the Presidential delegate) to work with Bosnian women in that war-torn country; we meet five of these women, ranging from old to young. Especially interesting is the character of Zlata (Diane Venora), a pediatrician now reduced to physical labor or just displacement in a refugee camp. The year is 1995. No intermission, first and last scenes in J. S.’s New York apartment; the rest in the refugee camp.

A deeply-felt portrayal of the pain and misery of women in war. It takes some time for the play to catch hold, but it ends up engrossing the audience, who feel the power and cumulative force of the work — and who rose for a standing ovation at the end. There are some structural problems which may be endemic to the subject, or at least to the decision to frame the Bosnian action with the two scenes in J. S.’s apartment. The return to it by J. S., alone, at the end of the play, when she dictates a message to the journalist Melissa into a tape recorder — Melissa’s preferred medium of reportage — doesn’t have the force of an ending that we need. And if she was the envoy of the President, why don’t we see her making a report to him? There is also a sense that Bosnia has been left behind, or relegated to a distance. The truth is, the five women are in such distress that only minor advances, if any, are possible out of their plight. The idea is, it seems, that “talk therapy” will do them some good. This is J. S.’s specialty, and it is this character who carries the play, at first offended and discouraged but then, as she allows herself to relent, sympathetic and consoling. Talk is also Melissa’s medium; but, although she prides herself on being a realist, she maintains a certain self-protection through detachment, a distancing J. S. comes to deplore and even condemn.

We can see soon enough how the rhetoric of the play operates. The audience initially identifies with Melissa, a brave and adventurous young woman, and perceives that J. S. has something to learn. But gradually, as J. S. feels her resistance melting, we find ourselves transferring our allegiance to her and agreeing with J. S.’s condemnation of Melissa’s professional dependence on the tape recorder, which serves as a shield between her and the horrors that it is her business to report. But this is, I think, ultimately too easy a shift. Melissa has a self-defensive speech toward the end in which she justifies herself by saying that she is a professional and has to go where the action is: her next assignment is Chechnya. It seems that we are to view Melissa’s apartment as a kind of abandonment of these desperate Bosnian women, and to see J. S.’s unconditional befriending of them as the signal moral act of the play. The result is a two-easy division of motives into over-simplified black-and-white. There is no room in this emotional schema for us to be allowed to understand what drives Melissa and keeps her going in one supremely difficult situation after another. And as for J. S., having given herself so unreservedly to these women and their plight, and having gotten them to talk about it, she is free to return to New York, feed herself with Chinese take-out, and send a message to Melissa to the effect that she, J. S., has had her life irretrievably changed by this experience.

But, we wonder, was that the ultimate purpose of the Bosnian sojourn? It seems that it’s fine for J. S. to return to her comfortable, convenient life, now that her consciousness has been raised about the terrible lives of third-world women. One discerns a certain sentimentality in this; to use George Meredith’s words, we don’t see any real acknowledgment of “the immense debtorship for the thing done.” Ensler doesn’t seem to find any irony in J. S.’s return at the end. Great! — J. S. has been deeply moved by her experience. And so . . . ? Is moral clarity the only good here? I find myself wishing for something more, or something else — at least, some indication that our newly achieved understanding of the plight of dispossessed women (for J. S.’s understanding becomes ours, of course, through our spectatorship) is not all-in-all sufficient.

Excellent performances all around here, and Michael Wilson’s direction is as usual clear as a bell. His great strength as the director is the way he can help actors to realize their characters authentically and honestly even while they contribute to the unerring advancement of the dramatic action. Wilson doesn’t ever play for the sentimental, either — witness his direction of Blanche in last season’s (or earlier) Streetcar — but there’s not much he can do with the incipient feel-good quality of Ensler’s play. Ensler is really at the top of her form in crafting scenes of great emotional intensity; she understands her characters extremely well (with the notable exception of Melissa, a thankless role for an actress because Melissa is dismissed as just heartless instead of being analyzed more carefully as a woman with an important (to her, and to us, too) job to do, whose price is a necessary level of detachment). She brings these characters, so well differentiated as they are, and each with her own vital spark, into meaningful proximity and allows the sparks to fly.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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