She casts on the water the breadcrumbs that represent the sins of the old year at the end of Tashlik, a Jewish ritual of regrets–then the woman throws herself into the river. Decades before, on a foreign battlefield, six soldiers who have already made the ultimate sacrifice for their country reevaluate the exchange–and come climbing out of their shared grave in search of redress.

They constitute twin trajectories, poetic arcs that cross in opposite directions: one toward life, one away. They are also two telling gestures of remorse in differing theatrical works of political critique, offered during what we’ve come to recognize over the past five years as our own week of falling bodies.

Genre theorist Elaine Scarry has claimed it is the invisibility of pain that makes modern war possible. That quality has been stage-managed, arguably to an unprecedented degree, in the years since September 2001, with photojournalists cordoned off from the front lines at the start of the Iraq war, the public not permitted even to view the coffins of soldiers on their return trip home. Guantanamo Bay and the secret overseas CIA prisons now acknowledged by the Bush administration have been the alleged sites of interrogation tactics impermissible on American soil.

But in the antiwar drama BURY THE DEAD, produced by the Raleigh Ensemble Players at Artspace, novelist and playwright Irwin Shaw contends that we may well have arrived at the ultimate expression of such eclipses of conscience centuries earlier. The work asks to what extent the burial of war dead constitutes the essential act of erasure: How drastically would combat change if we had to live with–and alongside–ongoing and physically graphic reminders of the consequences of our actions?

The answers are some time in coming in this 1936 script whose occasionally creaky dialogue and problematic plot structure betrays its age. After the six dead privates rise up, one by one, in the pit intended as their common grave, inexplicably they remain standing there for days, as the military exhausts a series of negotiating strategies.

As matters escalate, a sergeant, a captain, a doctor and a general each tries to reason the boys into accepting their fate, lying down and being buried. When they fail, the wives, sisters, mothers and sweethearts of the soldiers are sent for. In separate–and uniquely dysfunctional–reunions, each woman ironically kills some individual thing that the men might have conceivably lived for. Such cold comfort only hardens their resolve.

As their number mounts, the rhythm of these encounters flirts with monotony. Marilee Spell must be–and fortunately is–compelling in the last of these as Martha, a wife completely disillusioned with the poverty of her life with Private Webster (Rob Jenkins). Spell’s harrowing performance alone, in which Martha critiques her married life, is nearly worth the price of admission.

Credit director C. Glen Matthews for strong supporting work from Chris Brown and Shawn Smith as generals dealing with the crisis, and Zach Thomas as a priest brought in at the last.

The dead (Jenkins, along with Ryan Brock, Chris Milner, Eric Morales, Robert Bartusch and Thomas Porter) do have a major impact here as a troupe, for example, when they slowly look to the side in unison when a military man says something absurd. The sometimes silent, sometimes vocal demands they make on the living–mostly to be left alone–are impressive.

If we favor the performances of the women (including regional veteran Maggie Rasnick, Beth Popelka, Mariette Booth and Whitney Griffin), it may well be because Matthews directed the six men to turn their backs on the audience for almost the entirety of the show. This staging decision might have been made to minimize the production’s reliance on special makeup effects (for men whose injuries we are told include gaping chest wounds and having parts of their head blown away). Unfortunately, the choice also mutes the actors’ individual contributions.

Thomas Mauney and Miyuki Su’s striking, atmospheric set places us close to the smoke of the battlefield and the hellish dawn of a less-than-celestial resurrection. Still, it seems suddenly awkward at moments when characters walk its narrow downward platforms toward the audience.

Shaw’s work reminds us that a war-making regime relies on the obedience of the living as well as the dead. In his shattered world, the latter occupy the moral high ground.

Bury the Dead

Raleigh Ensemble Players
Artspace Gallery 2
Through Sept. 23

The more you know about Wendy Wasserstein’s life, the harder it is to watch sections of AN AMERICAN DAUGHTER. Anyone doubting the connections between the playwright’s experiences and those of supporting character Judith B. Kaufman–a single Jewish woman desperate to have a child while rapidly approaching middle age– should read the essay “Complications,” which she wrote for the New Yorker in February 2000 following the birth of her daughter, Lucy Jane.

Intuitively we know moments of Kaufman’s character verge on autobiography. Her account of a Tashlik baptism–actually, her character’s attempted self-drowning–chills us for the moment before Wasserstein plays it for a punch line, in a signature move.

One of the main things this Theater in the Park production does is remind us of what we’ve lost since the death of this feminist warrior earlier this year. Wasserstein’s targets are entirely worthy, and her inquiry into the politics of dissection–when a woman’s nomination for surgeon general is derailed over a meaningless flub, decades before–remains, alas, too timely.

But difficulties arise when a number of characters sound more like position papers than people. Her script is riddled with lines of dialogue no human would actually say to another. And even in the altered reality of Beltway politics, her characters jump the shark repeatedly in order to get to the debate on media and politics that Wasserstein is interested in having. That argument is crucial to the continued health of the body politic. But getting there requires continuous and escalating suspensions of disbelief.

Shawn Stewart-Larson directs Betsy Henderson, as endangered nominee Lyssa Dent Hughes, to keep her head. Eric Carl has difficulty lending Morrow McCarthy, a shrilly written gay conservative pundit, credence and taste, while Kelly Rebecca McConkey gets similarly stuck in the two-dimensional piranha costume as predatory “neo-feminist” Quincy Quince. Sheila M. O’Rear convinces as Dr. Kaufman, and Bob Martin redefines avuncularity as Lyssa’s father, Sen. Bob Hughes.

Though we miss Wasserstein and need her voice in the current crisis, An American Daughter is not her strongest work.

An American Daughter

Theatre in the Park
Through Sept. 24

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