BWW Reviews: BLOOD AND GIFTS at Woolfe Street Playhouse
I don't usually enjoy sitting through bleak plays. I prefer to be uplifted by the end. Woolfe Street Playhouse's production of BLOOD AND GIFTS by JT Rogers is not uplifting, but somehow kept me glued in my seat and somberly invested for its duration. A violently charged drama, the story takes place during the conflict over Afghanistan in the 1980's, involving the US, Great Britain, Soviet Russia, Pakistan and Iran. Seeing a story of such political relevance acted out live, offered a truly chilling experience, like seeing events on the news happening in real time.
Jim Warnock is a CIA operative working with Great Britain and the Pakistan ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) to provide weapons to Mujahideen, the Afghan resistance. He is joined in Pakistan by his MI6 and KGB counterparts Simon Craig and Gromov. The US has been funding the war effort through ISI, with heavy support going to Hekmatyar, a right-wing Islamist known for his extreme brutality. Jim and Craig feel that this is the wrong course of action, so Jim seeks out Abdulluh, another warlord (non-extremist) to help him gather information on the Afghan situation in exchange for weapons. Abdullah's right hand man is Saeed, who also works with Jim in providing information about Afghanistan. Their assistance is vital, since CIA operatives are not allowed on Afghan soil. Both Jim and Craig, as outsiders in Pakistan, suffer from homesickness and regret. They explore the fear of realizing that they are becoming more at home in the war-torn middle east, because after 4 years there, it has become their world.
As conflict between Afghanistan and the Soviets escalates, Jim arranges a meeting between Abdulluh and South Carolina Senator Birch (A coincidence that did not go unnoticed by the audience). Birch agrees to fund Abdulluh further, as well as provide him with Stinger Missiles, an idea strongly unadvised by Jim's CIA superior Barns. Barns warns that this decision may backfire- a prediction that unfortunately turns out to be correct. After Jim returns to Afghanistan for another few years, the Soviets begin to withdraw forces, thanks to the outside funding and improved weaponry. The US sees this as a victory and departs Afghanistan, which slowly falls into Civil War.
Rarely do you see a play as applicable to modern times as this. Director Keely Enright says, "Charlie Wilson's War and The Great Game are two excellent sources for the history of both the Imperial take over of Afghanistan by the Brits in the 19th Century and our involvement in the Afghanistan/Soviet war of the 80's. For me the biggest take-away was how completely Americans failed to see that we do not truly understand this culture. How we continue to look at their culture with a Western perspective." These events led directly to the emergence of the terrorist groups of Al-Qaida and the Taliban in the middle east. After the US withdrew from Afghanistan the warlords all turned on each other and Civil War erupted. The rehearsal process was focused on being as factual and honest as possible and the performances reflect that. The set is simple and barren. The use of light and typewriter titles above the action added an appropriately jolting sense of the passage of time, as well as cleanly punctuating each scene.
Josh Wilhoit as Jim Warnock, is the steady center here. Direct, and unwavering in voice and movement, he navigates the play with the best intentions, and in the face of personal loss, remains focused and steady. As British MI6 Agent Simon Craig, Brian Turner is fragile and skittish, a wonderful contrast to Wilhoit's pillar of strength. Brent Fox as Abdullah Khan is manipulative and strong, with an unsettling sense of determination. The most surprising performance comes from John Black as Saeed. Many of the characters in this show are bi-lingual and have long lines of Farsi, Russian and Arabic. Black, as Saeed, in a scene of passionate distress, breaks into desperate prayer, pleading in Arabic to Allah and stopped the show. The room fell still and silent. Perhaps what makes his performance so rich is his ability to go from intense anger in one scene to lighthearted comedy in others-mostly in his interactions with American women, and his endearing enthusiasm for American pop music- he explores many layers effortlessly. Other standout performances include Ryan Ahlert as the Pakistan Colonel Afridi and Robin Burke as Senator Birch. David Loar as CIA operative Barns was cold, but with great heart explains the difficulties of decision making in wartime, a scene that forces the audience to think from many different directions.
What we are left with is a group of people whose lives have been permanently altered by this conflict. The structure of the piece, involving many unexpected twists and turns, makes it feel like you are in the middle of a chess game. Each character is a pawn, being moved around the board by his beliefs, be they moral, religious, political etc. What truly made my stomach crawl were the lies. Every character had secrets and ulterior motives, that at times made progress seem unattainable. In a world of war and espioinage, lies are used to protect and to attack. No one can be trusted. No one is the hero.