9 Parts of Desire

@ PlayMakers Rep
Closed April 26

If it’s difficult to read stories from a time of war, it’s even more difficult to stage them. If a playwright, an actor, a director can be said to walk a tightrope when they do, in works like 9 Parts of Desire, which closed this year’s PRC2 series at PlayMakers Rep last week, it’s due to the profound tensions present along the written, spoken and acted linetensions that come from it being pulled in several directions at once.

The artistic generosityand the journalistic imperativethat leads a stage artist to donate voice, body and energy to tell someone else’s tale strain against aesthetic realities based in the shortcomings of human nature. Understate the horrors of armed conflict and you fail your subjects. Overstate them, though, and you fall prey to the sensationalism and exploitation of yellow journalism and agitprop. Moreover, an audience will follow a production only so far into the extreme. Beyond a point, graphic representations and narratives alienate and deaden our capacity to take in more: Too frequently the theater of social conscience proves that human kind, as T.S. Eliot noted in “Burnt Norton,” cannot bear very much reality.

Bitterbut familiarirony, on the other hand, we seem to countenance a lot better. Playwright Heather Raffo’s courageous collection of Iraqi women cried out to us, after all, the same week that an American president called for our nation to move on from the Iraq warmove on, that is, without certain precious commodities. Several thousand American troops. A full accounting of torture in that conflict: its architects, engineers, contract laborers and its real rationalewhich may just tie into a full accounting of why our military was ever sent to Iraq in the first place.

I was about to say that the nine women in 9 Parts have their own list of needful things that would help reassemble lives after war. But it seems presumptuous to conclude that the war, for any of these women, is truly over.

Under Emily Ranii’s empathic direction, actor Elizabeth Huffman conveys nuanced portrayals of complex women. A visual artist revels in the sensuous before she realizes, to her horror, that her body endures a state of occupation similar to her countryside. A teenage girl who is not allowed to leave her home without a male chaperone fights cabin fever with ‘N Sync videos and Oprah while trying to convince herself she’s not the real reason her father was abducted by Hussein’s militia. An aging London expat who confesses straight up that “Exile, for intellectuals … is mostly Scotch,” feels a sharp tug when she realizes the grandmothers of today’s Iraqi women had greater freedoms. Meanwhile, in New York, a second-generation American Catholic of Iraqi descent wants to pray the rosary but can only fervently intone the names of her relatives in Baghdad that she fears have been killed in the war. Huffman and Ranii have made this moment the most magnetic, most compelling in all of 9 Parts.

It’s fitting that a New England Journal of Medicine article published one week before this production revealed that air strikes and artillery barrages from 2003-08 took a heavy toll among Iraq’s most vulnerable civilians, with women and children constituting a disproportionate number of the dead. Another recent study found that a century ago, an estimated 90 percent of war casualties were military men. In a series of modern conflicts, though, that same percentage90 percentapplies now to the number of civilian casualties, in a study that finds 80 percent of those are women and children.

Playwright Heather Raffo had the news six years ago. We’re just receiving it nowin small dosages, like this indispensable play.