Through Sunday, Oct. 28
Burning Coal Theatre, Raleigh
By the time George W. Bush erroneously declared “Mission Accomplished” near the end of the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, British playwright David Hare had already begun work on Stuff Happens, his panoramic modern-history play tracing the steps U.S. leaders took, over the eighteen months following 9/11, to mislead our nation and an international “coalition of the willing” into war against a country that had no involvement in the 2001 attacks.
By August of 2003, counter-terrorism expert Jessica Stern concluded that the Iraq War had already manifested one net result: It had “taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one. Even if there weren’t any Al-Qaeda in Iraq before the Americans went in, there most certainly are now.”
What drove Hare to spend more than a year chronicling the events of the present? A major clue appears in a sequence that must have been added within days of the 2004 London world premiere. In it, a character reports that, in a poll taken eighteen months after the Iraqi invasion, 70 percent of American voters still believed Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11. Hare makes a compelling argument that the truth suffered casualties as damaging as those sustained on either side. A playwright whose faith in the present was deeply shaken wrote Stuff Happens as a record, and a warning, for the future.
In the stark metaphors of Meredith Riggan’s striking floor design, the black and white details of a partially obliterated painting of the presidential seal are smeared into areas of odious gray. Director Lillian White propels her gifted cast through Hare’s wordy script, eliciting a series of vivid performances from a veritable who’s-who of American and British leadership at the time. Michael Babbitt’s crisp, sharp take on Dubya establishes one pole of this dramatic world; Matthew Baldiga’s prim, precise reading of hard-pressed British prime minister Tony Blair is another. Byron Jennings conveys the conscience of Colin Powell, Bush’s embattled secretary of state, whose sterling reputation was tragically sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
On the darker side, we savored Rob Jenkins’s smug, insidious depiction of the Sydney Greenstreet of Republican politics, Dick Cheney. Dialect coach Rebecca Bossen coaxed a drop-dead vocal impersonation of Donald Rumsfeld from the skilled Brooks North. Tyanna West gets at the enigma of the adamantly non-disclosing Condoleezza Rice. Veterans Fred Corlett, Julia Oliver, and Michelle Wells, and newcomers Darius Shafa and Menaiah Barnes, give strong supporting performances.
Unfortunately, Hare’s broad-ranging epic proves a very tight fit on Burning Coal’s intimate stage, with actors wheeling chairs and tables on and off between every scene to take us to rooms in London, Washington, D.C., and Texas. Still, that distracting necessity underscores the shifting tectonics of power and perception. Also distracting: Dogbotic’s music and audio design, which occasionally make a deliberate babble of passages including a State of the Union address.
It’s passing strange that this Burning Coal Theatre production teaches a different lesson than Hare probably intended. The shrillness of the present political moment convinces progressives that no time has ever been more dire than ours—just as a similar idea persuaded conservatives to elect Trump in 2016. But Hare’s work provides historical perspective that times as dark or darker have come before. Other lies have been foisted on the world. Some of their originators went unpunished. It has sometimes taken decades to learn the truth. Stuff happens. Then, for better and worse, we act on it and move on. It is somehow oddly comforting when Hare’s chronicle of past misrule reminds us that we have survived it before.