Theater Review: “Homebody” – A Nation in a Reading Nook

Debra Wise’s stellar turn is not only a reflection of her long stage career, but a testament to the breadth of her experience, which includes working in an ambitious range of theatrical styles, from naturalism and clowning to puppetry.

Homebody by Tony Kushner. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Staged by by Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA, through May 7.

Debra Wise in the Underground Railway Theater production of "Homebody."  Photo: A.R. Sinclair

Debra Wise in the Underground Railway Theater production of “Homebody.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair

By Ian Thal

The Homebody (Debra Wise) sits in an armchair, one of her legs curled up under her, reading Nancy Hatch Dupree’s 1965 An Historical Guide to Kabul. Beside her is an end table with a teacup and a bauhaus-style stained glass lamp. Underneath her is a circular area rug and all about her — sitting on shelves, in orderly stacks, or in toppled over piles — are books and journals, mostly from the second hand trade. It’s a cozy reading nook, suspended in the darkness of the black box studio space at the Central Square Theater.

The Homebody’s name is never revealed, but when dramatist Tony Kushner lengthened this 1997 one-act into 2001’s full-length play Homebody/Kabul, he introduced her previously unnamed husband and daughter — Milton and Priscilla Ceiling. But before he arrived at the epic, he had come up with something precious — a gloriously expansive miniature (and such an oxymoron is appropriate).

The Homebody is an exquisite literary creation: an autodidact who has possibly never ventured beyond the city limits of London, who knows the world by way of a voracious reading of news clippings, antiquated book,s and explorations of her city’s ethnic shops. She is aware that the Afghanistan that strikes her as exotic and romantic from the comfort of her armchair is now the site of atrocity after atrocity. And she has some intuition of a causal connection between her luxury and the suffering thousands of miles away – even if it is little more than the innaction and isolationism of her contemporaries and the governments they elect. Her taste in literature has made her talkative — she speaks in paragraphs, asides, and tangents that loop back upon one another, ever interupting herself to define some arcane word that we may not be familiar with. Her intoxication with language has alienated her husband and everyone else about her. She notes early on that in this marriage “we both take powerful anti-depressants.” Despite her respectable enough appearance – clothing, hair, pharmaceuticals – the moment she opens her mouth her eccentricities fly forth, words tumbling out of a scrambled-up dictionary.

Dupree’s prose style, which Kushner’s Homebody often quotes, is mesmerizing. And perhaps it is the awareness how far out of date the text has become that hammers home our sense that we are living through history; that change, often violent change, has happened, and is happening at the very moment we try to make it stop – and, in its elemental flux, history inevitably defies us.

Homebody was written years before America entered its longest war, still ongoing as of this writing. The Taliban were only on the periphery of most westerners’ awareness: NATO interventions in the Balkans and failing to intervene in Rwanda were the international events dominating the news. There was only marginal awareness of Osama bin Laden; in fact, critics across the political spectrum were cynically suggesting that the Clinton Administration’s missile strikes against Al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan and elsewhere were attempts to distract from the Lewinsky scandal.

It is also the era when prozac, the medication the Homebody has likely been prescribed (she has trouble remembering the name), became popular and that anti-depressants in general had garnered a certain bourgeoise respectability. Her husband has a different prescription, which Homebody liberally samples (“so I can know what he’s feeling”).

The third thread in this story, along with the woman’s fascination with the pre-1965 history of Afghanistan and her ill-advised psychopharmaceutical experimentation, is her call to accomplish her duty as a housewife. Her husband is some sort of engineer who is working on the internet at a time when it was still an exotic realm (Homebody takes no interest in it). A recent success at his firm is being celebrated with a party. This leads the Homebody to a shop run by Afghan immigrants to purchase exotic, hand-made hats for all of her guests. Homebody’s description of the hats are magical, and they are matched by Heather Daveno’s unique designs.

In her capacity as Underground Railway Theater’s artistic director, Wise has has long cultivated a relationship with Kushner’s texts (she began rehearsing for the role of The Homebody in June of last year). It is not just a matter of admiring his thematic/political content, but her obvious affection for the musical qualities of his prose and how it creates a three-dimensional characters. Whether it is the quirk of an eyebrow, a curl of the lip, the flutter of her fingers or and extension of the arm, the actor has come up with an exacting physicality that puts muscles and bones on Kushner’s words – even though, ironically enough, she spends a considerable chunk of the play seated in an armchair. Wise may be still but she is never static. A long rehearsal period has given her ample time to patiently unearth the rhythms of the words, to discover changes in mood both subtle and striking. She is in charge of tonal variation, moving from absurd humor and scholarly fascination to moral horror. The fact that she nails this performance while speaking in a public school accent (Christine Hamel serves as dialect coach) only makes the achievement that much greater. Wise’s stellar turn is not only a reflection of her long stage career, but a testament to the breadth of her experience, which includes working in an ambitious range of theatrical styles, from naturalism and clowning to puppetry.

Could it be that so few of our local companies attempt to stage Kushner’s work because of the weighty intellectual demands of his texts? (Also, the playwright is selective about whom he gives the rights to produce his scripts.) It says something about Underground Railway’s admirable dedication that, in addition to the long rehearsal period, a team of three dramaturgs (Alyssa Schmidt, Aria Lynn Sergany, and Erik Niklander) were assigned to unpack this play.

Lee Mikeska Gardner’s direction is superb – her approach is propelled by a quest: to find the will, discipline, and understanding to do justice to such challenging material, to illuminate the dramatic arc of a privileged middle-aged Englishwoman chattering on in her personal library about a far away country, a land whose whose geographical breath is vast, and whose history is as lovely, dark and deep (and as prone to incubating madness) as the woods in Robert Frost’s poem.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report

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