I walked out of EM Lewis’s new play Heads on Sunday thinking a lot about courage. First and foremost: about the courage it would take to face, in real life, what her characters face. Violently abducted by Iraqi terrorists at gunpoint, four ordinary people (a British embassy worker and two journalists and an engineer from the US) are bound, gagged, blindfolded, stripped of everything but their clothes, beaten, and tossed into tiny windowless underground cells to…wait. For food, for a chance to go to the bathroom, for rescue (they hope), but most likely for further beatings and eventual death at the hands of their captors. It’s so horrible to imagine that my mind doesn’t even want to begin to go there, which brings me to another kind of courage: the courage it takes for a writer like Lewis to create a play that requires imagining the alternately mundane and terrifying minute-to-minute details of what it would be like to be in that situation and to craft in words and dialogue and action the utter despair and hopelessness and terror that none of us ever want to imagine having to feel. And then there is the courage it takes for the actors to occupy this physical and psychological space, and for the director and creative team to create the conditions in which the whole nightmare feels palpable and real to the audience. Heads is also a play that takes some courage to watch, as it forces us to experience, with the characters, a hell that has unfortunately been all too real for far too many (the play draws from a number of headline-garnering abductions, including the capture and eventual beheading of the journalist Daniel Pearl).
The play focuses mainly on the experiences of the hostages themselves. Michael Apres (Tony Bingham), a network journalist, and Jack Velazquez (Patrick Cannon), a freelance photographer, have been taken from their convoy, in an attack that they think has left friends and fixers dead. In another part of the same compound, Caroline Conway (Diana Ifft), abducted during her morning commute to the Embassy, is shoved, bound and gagged, into a cell already occupied by American engineer Harold Wolfe (James Fitzgerald), who is in his seventh month of captivity. The reactions of the different personalities to the horror of captivity is the main subject of the play; what action there is serves mainly to reinforce their (and our) feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. Lewis wisely follows the example of the ancient Greeks and locates all of the violence off-stage; we hear, but never see, the captors, and only see the results of their brutality, not the bruality itself. They are much more menacing and scary as a result. Projections above the stage are used to give some context, to provide a sense of why these terrorists do what they do (we see, for example, innocent children, and weeping old women), but if they were intended to make me consider “the other side” they did not really have the desired effect on me. On reflection, I suppose, there is a logic to abducting and killing civilians in response to the death of civilians, but in the moment of experiencing the play, as I felt for the characters’ plight, there was little that could justify the captors’ actions or humanize them for me. More effective were projections showing what the terrorists were filming for the outside world (the hostages, blindfolded at gunpoint, forced to make statements), as these connected the fictional world inside the cells to the real-life events we have all seen on the evening news.
The production is harrowing, which is to say that it is very good. Britton Mauk has designed a space that feels cramped and implacably solid even though there are no walls to demarcate the cells, and the steel grid that forms the ceiling adds to the atmosphere of menace. Steve Shapiro’s sound makes the captors terrifyingly present, which is crucial to the play’s effect. Bingham, Cannon, Ifft, and Fitzgerald are utterly believable in their handling of the fear, despair, boredom, irritation, anger, and the rest of the range of emotions the situation puts them through, and I cannot but admire the courage it must take to enter the world of this play for a two week run.