Is it that daunting to be a woman?
As a man, maybe I can't fully grasp the tangled emotions of guilt, courage, exhilaration, cynicism and terror of the nine women of "9 Parts of Desire."
But the actresses depicting women who have all been affected by decades of turmoil in Iraq make me want to understand them.
9 Parts of Desire is a round robin of monologues; the women share their stories of loves lost, ideals shattered in turns, one tale leading into another with a flick of a scarf, a turn of the heel.
And though they share emotions common to women (and humans in general) worldwide, their lives play out against the singular backdrop of war. Messy, complicated, nearly never-ending war.
Director John DiDonna has staged the production in the round so the women shuffle around in front of the audience, stopping to pray or sit, paint or drink. These aren't women in a far-off world, the message seems to be. These are women right here with you.
The stage is nearly bare: Just flickering candles in bowls and the women's shoes, removed at play's start.
This simplicity focuses attention on playwright Heather Raffo's words and the nine actresses. Even Jennifer Bonner's costuming, simple draping dresses and headscarves, draws the audience's eyes to the women's faces.
Leesa Halstead is all defiant smile and flashing eyes as fiery Layal, a painter who chooses to stay in Iraq on her terms -- even if that means working hand in hand with the Saddam Hussein regime so she can continue her own artwork. Halstead channels all that energy into fear by play's end, when Layal's bluster begins to crack.
Olivia Horn charms as Amal, a sunny Bedouin whose problems will resonate with many Americans. Of her husband's first wife, Amal spills like a gossipy friend: "Really, she crazy." Her latest problem? She thinks she lost her man because she's too fat.
The other actresses have moments to make strong impressions, and they do: An Iraqi teen (Sarah Villegas) slowly realizes an innocent childhood remark may have doomed her father; an American bombing survivor (Stasha Boyd) strains to keep her composure as she explains why she's named for her daughter; an Iraqi in exile (Mikki Scanlon Kriekard) finally lets her anger at what Saddam did to her country boil over.
Playwright Raffo creates vivid images in her audience's minds. An American character of Iraqi descent speaks of going to the gym to "work out to the war on three channels." An Iraqi says of her tight-lipped society: "Iraqis don't open their mouths, not even for the dentist."
She wrote the play after a visit to Iraq, and her characters are based on real-life stories she heard from women there. Sometimes, a feeling of hyper-reality can blunt the personal emotional impact. A doctor's list of babys' birth defects and the graphic narrative of the bombing survivor horrifies in the way an overseas-news account does, a step removed, as opposed to the more universal strands of the script.
The play's structure shifts abruptly for the climax, as the audience is yanked from listening to the women's stories to watching one play out in the here and now. It's an aeriel attack in Iraq, and suddenly bombs are booming, lights are flashing, characters are yelling. It's all too much, marring the simplicity of what's gone before.
The emotions etched on the women's faces as they worry about their children, curse Saddam, curse Bush, mourn their dead or kneel in prayer tell their tales much more eloquently.