Wednesday, January 11, 2012

ASF: "In the Book of..."

Alabama Shakespeare Festival's playwright-in-residence John Walch's In the Book of... was conceived at least a year before Alabama's House Bill 56 -- a notorious immigration law touted as the strongest in the country -- made national & international headlines, pitting Xenophobic extremists against more tolerant Alabamians.

A World Premier showing now in the Octagon Theatre for only a few weeks, Walch based his play in part on the Old Testament's Book of Ruth, a model of compasionate understanding of strangers in a strange land that could well serve contemporary circumstances by offering peaceful ways to combat ignorance and come to terms with neighbors seeking a better life on America's shores.

Walch's story centers on Anisah [Sarah Corey] an Afghan translator for Lt. Naomi Watkins [Rachel Leslie]; when each woman loses a husband in the war, their bond is strengthened, and Naomi helps bring her friend to the fictitious town of Broxton, MS -- unfortunately as an illegal immigrant. Each becomes a source of the other's strength as they deal with the effects of war, their husbands' deaths, and the impact of the local community's intollerance of strangers spearheaded by Naomi's sister-in-law Gail [Blair Sams] who is campaigning for mayor of Broxton, broom in hand, on a platform of "sweeping out" all illegals.

The rhetoric builds, with mob mentality drowning out clear-headed discussion, and escalates to other altercations. -- It does not help that Gail's husband Bo Sr. [Christopher Gerson] is one of many today who has lost his job and is reduced to working in a fast food extablishment, while their son Bo Jr. [Matt Dickson] -- still damaged from guilt over his brother's accidental death and swearing never to enjoy life -- is a landscaper in difficult straits in hiring workers.

The common complaints of foreigners (legal or illegal) taking jobs away from native-born Americans fuels the fire, though it is clearly not a real issue since, as in real life, the natives won't do the manual labor that only immigrants seem to be willing to do. -- So Bo winds up hiring and quickly falling in love with Anisah, her willingness to learn American ways and assimilate into the culture in completely non-threatening ways is endearing both to Bo and to the audience.

Perhaps Walch's strongest script elements are the balance he achieves in both developing complex characters and the fairness with which he treats these sensitive issues; it is important to know, for example, that there is no clear-cut delineation between good and evil characters, that seemingly narrowminded ones like Gail are simultaneously lovingly passionate in the defense of family, and that the issues regarding illegal immigrants are complex -- that extremes of any sort will not achieve anything other than continued intimidation and harrassment, mistrust and violent repurcussions.

Though there are some eerie off-stage sound effects of sweeping brooms combined with choral chants against illegals, much of the on-stage action is told with an acknowledgement of humor mixed with the serious. -- As Anisah innocently attempts to record American colloquialisms and learns to spit watermelon seeds and catch fireflies, she is quick to let others know that she is "an imigrant, not an idiot".

The acting company are all new to ASF, with the exception of Ms. Corey who played Anisah in the Southern Writers' Project staged reading of In the Book of... on its first incarnation. -- And they are the strength of this production. Walch's episodic structure contains a deliberate exposition followed by numerous short scenes in this two-and-a-half-hour play and a fairly abrupt change of heart by Gail at the end.

A true ensemble company of actors, they interpret under Risa Brainin's crisp direction, the intentions of the playwright, the human implications of his themes, and the complexity of the individuals and their relationships. To their credit, audiences might switch allegiances several times during the presentation: each side makes sense, and even their inherent contradictions create far more interesting personalities than ones that could be easily categorized. The credibility of each role and the sensitivity with which they inhabit their characters also allow us to evaluate our own social & political beliefs & behavior, provoking discussion of the significant issues facing us today.