We are not accustomed, these days, to seeing actual violence on stage, even for tragic stories, unless we are watching a Shakespearean revival. Death is certainly talked about in our modern dramas, war is present, family trauma, murder, the whole gamut of horror is addressed, but rarely depicted. Unless we are dealing with classical tragedy (Greek or Shakespearean), we generally save that for the movies.
Playwright Stefanie Zadravec has (appropriately) bucked this convention in her stunning exploration of the Bosnian War, Honey Brown Eyes.
Grippingly directed by Susi Damilano, this riveting play explores the experience of genocidal war on a small group of ordinary people.
The first act is set in an apartment in Visegrad, where history tells of the massacres committed against the Bosniak (Muslim) population in which most of the men were killed outright and the women systematically beaten and raped before they also were killed, exiled or driven insane. It is a difficult story.
Playwright Zadravec initially approaches the task by detailing an encounter between just two people: a Bosnian woman, Alma (played with gentle dignity by an excellent Jennifer Stuckert) and a young Serbian soldier, Dragan (brilliantly portrayed by Nic Grelli) who is fully caught up in the massacre.
When Dragan bursts through the door of Alma’s meagre home, he is excited and crazed, in the grip of blood lust. In Nic Grelli’s carefully nuanced portrayal, we see his struggle to remember his own humanity as well as his hyped up commitment to the cause of annihilating the “enemy”. His confusion and desperation and struggle are so immediately evident, we cannot help but sympathize with his plight. It is shocking when we see him turn on Alma in a grossly brutal, violent, sexual attack. Yet even in the midst of this action, Grelli’s confusion is such that we never lose site of Dragan’s basic humanity. It is exciting and disturbing to watch.
When Alma realizes that she actually knew Dragan when they were teenagers, and shares her recognition, the plot takes a surprising twist. Dragan remembers her as well. He’d been in love with her and called her “Honey Brown Eyes”. As their conversation develops, Zadravec’s writing shows them simultaneously as innocent teenagers and desperate victims of war, caught up in a violent maelstrom.
As Dragan, Nic Grelli’s struggle to maintain his humanity and yet act the part of the solider is painfully palpable.
I, personally, found this painful yet fascinating to watch. You see, I have worked teaching incarcerated juvenile gang members and I recognized my students in his performance. I have taught young people guilty of brutal murders, rapes and home invasions whom I nevertheless knew as friendly, engaged teenaged boys. Like Dragan, they are simultaneously monsters and innocent kids. I have seen them struggle with these conflicting roles.
Watching this portrayal of a Bosnian soldier, I realized I was not watching something past and foreign: I was watching us, today, here and now. This was not a monster. This could be our own child. The playwright brings this home with surprising effect by the presence of a television on the table that plays American sitcoms. We cannot escape the truth that we are watching ourselves.
I will not go further to explore the plot of this outstanding production, as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for audiences. I will say that as the setting moves to Sarajevo, the play continues to explore the psychology of the effects of war from multiple perspectives, leaving viewers full of thought and reflection and hope and a full experience of catharsis.
The evening is well served by all the actors, including the aforementioned Jennifer Stuckert and Nic Grelli as Alma and Dragan, Madeleine Pauker as a young girl,* Cooper Carlson, frightening as Branko/Milenko, Chad Deverman, charming and moving as Denis, and especially bay area theatre stalwart Wanda McCaddon in a wonderful performance as Jovanka, an elderly widow with a kind heart and a startling will to survive.
We should, as always, be grateful to the San Francisco Playhouse for their continued commitment to bring to San Francisco the best new plays by America’s finest playwriting talents. As they inaugurate their 9th season with this brilliant production, we can only look with enthusiasm to see what comes next.
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*Madeleine Pauker rotates with Rachel Share-Sapolsky in the role of Zlata.
“Honey Brown Eyes” by Stefanie Zadravec. Producer: SF Playhouse. Director: Susi Damilano. Set: Bill English. Lights: Kurt Landisman. Sound: Brendan Aanes. Costumes: Miyuki Bierlein. Properties: Jacqueline Scott. Dialect Coach: Lynne Soffer. Fight Director: Dave Maier.
Alma: Jennifer Stuckert. Dragan: Nic Grelli. Branko/Milenko: Cooper Carlson. Zlata (rotating): Madeleine Pauker and Rachel Share-Sapolsky. Denis: Chad Deverman. Jovanka: Wanda McCaddon. Radio Announcer/understudy: Daniel Mitchell.
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