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Two productions tackle terrorism in our times 

Larry Evans and Rachel Klem in Ghost and Spice's "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them"

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Larry Evans and Rachel Klem in Ghost and Spice's "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them"

File another obscure entry in the Book of Coincidence: The same weekend that two regional companies opened productions that deal specifically with the terrorism of this decade, the U.S. government reported that Osama bin Laden was killed during a raid in Pakistan.

The kicker? The fateful military operation took place two weeks after Raleigh Ensemble Players' production of Neil LaBute's 9/11—well, 9/12—drama, The Mercy Seat.

What did the Triangle theater scene know that everyone else didn't?

If bin Laden's death doesn't ultimately change the context of these disparate works on contemporary terrorism (and it may well not, for reasons we'll go into in a moment), it will surely alter the way both will be viewed this weekend in Durham and in Raleigh.

It's ironic: We're four months away from the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and just shy of the sixth anniversary of the July 7 suicide bombings in London, yet the timing of bin Laden's death might cause theatergoers to conclude, at least for now, that Christopher Durang's Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them and British playwright Simon Stephens' drama, Pornography, are a bit "too soon." After what promises to be a week of saturation coverage, claims and counterclaims, the last thing regional audiences might understandably desire by Thursday night is a choice between a farce and a drama on this subject.

But it would be a mistake to see these works purely as plays about terrorism, particularly since, strictly speaking, Durang's loopy satire and Stephens' elliptical but sober inquiry aren't about the same thing at all. In the 1990s, Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking and Bruce Graham's Coyote on a Fence helped reframe the arguments around the death penalty; similarly, Torture and Pornography, both written during the last five years, attempt to achieve similar goals in a time of terror. If neither entirely succeeds, that doesn't mean their questions aren't well worth raising.

For the most part, Stephens and Durang don't deal directly with the signature terrorist acts of 2005 and 2001. Instead, they focus almost entirely upon how their characters—and their cultures—respond to terror.

Stephens' conclusions, in particular, give us pause. At first, the premise of Pornography seems to be that the July 7 subway and bus bombings actually weren't the worst things going on in London that day, at least not for the characters we encounter during the seven sequences that make up Stephens' play. There's a young mother (Amy Sawyer), disconnected to the external world unless it affects her shopping and vacation plans, who finally lashes out at the bubble of alienation in which she lives. There's a divorced math teacher (Byron Jennings II) who overreaches in search of intimacy with a former student (Rosa Wallace). We also meet a woman (Samantha Corey) whose cynical eye for meme analyses doesn't prevent her from falling blindly into another disastrous relationship. An 82-year-old professor (Heather Snow Clark) struggles to finish a paper—and learn if her work is still relevant—as she fights her addiction to Internet porn. And there's a high school student (Jordan Westra) who pursues a crush by employing the only relationship tools he's acquired.

Most of these characters evince a palpable loneliness and anomie seemingly reinforced and exploited by consumerism, mass media and technology. But since none of them really has all that much to do with the bombings of July 7, Stephens opens himself to charges that Pornography is itself exploiting an atrocity in order to tell a considerably smaller and tangential tale.

But that misses the point. Yes, Stephens wears out an unfortunate catchphrase and over-relies on one specific mixed emotion by the end of his tale. But Pornography's controversial central argument is not only that the threat posed by Britain's own cultural insularity is far more insidious than a quartet of bombs on a London summer morning, but that the attacks couldn't have occurred without it.

Durang's Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is not the beloved satirist's strongest script. It attempts to rescue his characters—and his country—from the xenophobia and opportunism engendered by the war on terror that resulted in the torture-by-proxy of extraordinary rendition. This policy was enabled by legal "findings" concluding that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques weren't torture unless they resulted in organ failure.

But the only way it can is by literally hitting rewind three-fourths of the way through the script, a maneuver comparable to a Mac user frantically flipping through Time Machine in the search for any viable backup point to reboot.

No doubt we should be marveling that Durang, director Rus Hames and a muscular cast gets any comedic mileage out of the foregoing themes, along with several not mentioned here—and the laughs are plentiful in this Ghost and Spice production. But it's telling that the curtains are discreetly drawn when the physical violence in an "interrogation"—between a Tea Party-on-steroids dad and a sketchy new son-in-law—really gets under way.

Still, Durang's main point is well worth engaging. The unspeakable offers our culture the clear temptation to become every bit as unspeakable (and, apparently, unviewable) in our response. But if we do, where does the sliding stop? Once a society embraces death, pain and torture, can it be rebooted from any point after the start of civilization? Or must we go back somewhere before it began?

  • Distillery Theatre's Pornography; Ghost and Spice's Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them


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