In The Body of an American, written by Dan O’Brien, the subject of the play, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who has been assigned to many war zones, asks: “If I’m not crazy anyway, how would I do what I do?”
But it’s a question that refers to not only Paul Watson, the photographer, but to many an artist, especially one who seeks meaning in his or her art.These include the playwright, who is a character in his own two-hander.
O’Brien’s work is certainly timely and provocative, and there are tour de force performances by the two actors—
But the real central question of The Body of an American is the ethics of warfare, one that afflicts Watson (played by Eric Hissom) in the course of this dramatic work as well as, presumably, during his life.
In the play he is haunted by a voice he hears while clicking his camera, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” Whether this is the actual voice of a dying man or of his own internal struggle is left unclear in the play.
But the moral dilemma is certain:
Should he have photographed the scene that made him famous and won him a Pulitzer for spot news photography—of an U.S. soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 by a mob of jeering Somalis. The photograph also inspired the book and film Black Hawk Down and raised a political debate about U.S. military involvement. And yet, as one of the remaining journalists in Somalia, how could he not?
Despite gruesome reminiscences of war and a depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder (even among so-called non-combatants), the play has light moments and humor —mostly in the bantering of the two men. They form an unlikely friendship, partly because O’Brien (Thomas Keegan, in his Theater J debut) has demons of this own, of the more-domestic kind.
The Body of an American is also a travelogue, describing the various places Watson worked in and the playwright’s residences. The friendship is slow to get off the ground because of physical distances. (In reality, they met face to face only in 2010.)
O’Brien’s work is certainly timely and provocative, and there are tour de force performances by the two actors—Hissom more subtle, and Keegan more manic. So I’m surprised that I wasn’t more moved. (They are also to be commended for portraying, briefly, 15 characters between them—each with different accents.)
Perhaps what got to me most was the phone conversation between Watson and the dead soldier’s brother (portrayed by Keegan).
There may be two reasons. One, as that the play seemed is a bit un-play-like, at least in the conventional sense. It’s more a series of vignettes and conversations that doesn’t always connect comfortably.
Then, too, there is a lack of conflict, in my mind. Watson is surrounded by horrible wars and atrocities—as described, not shown—and beset by his inner turmoil. O’Brien is tormented by terrible or non-existing relationships with his family and by a mystery about his birth. They try to get together and can’t. But there is little real dramatic conflict between them.
Audience reaction seemed a bit divided, with the majority (I think) being deeply impressed, and others having some doubts.
The current production, of the 2014 drama marks its regional debut, co-sponsored with the Newseum. The Body of an American won the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American, and the PEN Center USA Award for Drama
Director Jose Carrasquillo has elicited lively, emotional performances from the two actors, playing up their differences and rapport.
Lighting is by Dan Covey. Also enhancing the production are the slides by projection designer Tim McLoraine.
Brendon Vierra is sound designer.
Several post-show programs are being offered. These include two discussions with Watson. One, “Pulitzer Prize at 100: The Photographers,” held at the Newseum in a program moderated by Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden (May 15, 2:30 p.m.) and A Post-Show Talkback (May 18, 9 p.m. at Theater J).
Advisory: Ages 16 and up. Language, graphic references to violence.
Running Time: 90 minutes long, with no intermission.
The Body of an American continues through May 22 at Theater J, Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater, Washington DC Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington DC 20036. For tickets and for information, call 202-777-3210 or click here.