- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2008

The grotesqueries and moments of grace in the Bosnian War are illumined in Theater J’s world-premiere production of Stefanie Zadravec’s play “Honey Brown Eyes,” directed with taut intensity by Jessica Lefkow and featuring searing performances by a first-rate cast.

At first glance, Theater J - with its emphasis on Jewish plays and themes - may seem an unlikely choice for a play about Christians and Muslims. However, genocide cannot be ignored, no matter who is the target, and in the case of the Bosnian War, the level of everyday intimacy between the warring Bosnians and Serbs makes the atrocities even more jarring.

To emphasize the distinct closeness and craziness of this war, Miss Zadravec (a D.C.-area native) sets the drama in parallel kitchens - rendered with drab authenticity by James Kronzer - in two besieged Bosnian cities, Visegrad and Sarajevo.

The first half of the play revolves around Visegrad and the character of Dragon (Alexander Strain), a Bosnian paramilitary soldier forced to commit brutal acts against Alma (Maia DeSanti), a Muslim woman on whom he had a crush long ago, when he was in a punk/New Age band with her brother. It is one thing just to follow orders, but the choices are terrible and immediately moral when you not only know the victim, but worshipped her in past days of innocence.

The acrid violence of these scenes takes your breath away, but what deepens the effect are the touchstone references to pop culture (The Cure, MTV, the TV sitcoms “Alf” and “The Cosby Show”) that humanize the exchanges and make the audience unable to distance themselves from the situation before them.

Mr. Strain deftly reveals the conflicts raging within a musician-turned-fighter - in one devastating swoop, he goes from beating Alma to playing air guitar with his automatic weapon. Miss DeSanti is anything but a passive victim as Alma, conveying a steady emotional honesty that gets you in the gut. Grady Weatherford is a fiery presence as a jovial, gung-ho solider goading Dragon to brutality.

The second half of the play moves to Sarajevo, right outside Sniper Alley, where an old Serbian woman named Jovanka (Barbara Rappaport) tries to keep up some semblance of normalcy. As she bustles about cooking supper, Denis (a dynamic and sensitive Joel Reuben Ganz), a Bosnian resistance fighter, seeks refuge in her apartment. Out of suspicion and desperation, a magical night unfolds as the two kindred souls forget the war for a few hours and drink, dance and share a love of music.

This appears to be the lighter of the two scenarios, given Jovanka’s flinty wit and her marvelous resilience, both traits beautifully drawn by Miss Rappaport. However, as the night wears on, you see how this unlikely pair is linked by almost unbearable sorrows.

“Honey Brown Eyes” is not an easy play to watch, and it does not give easy answers. Instead, it allows us to experience the ways humanity and horror coexist in a war where the “enemy” is not made up of faceless strangers, but of people you know and perhaps once loved.

…1/2

WHAT: “Honey Brown Eyes” by Stefanie Zadravec

WHERE: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 30.

TICKETS: $30 to $55

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

WEB SITE: www.theaterj.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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