The Rep succeeds with David Hare play

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

For over 35 years, British playwright and screenwriter David Hare has written plays and scripts that “capture the flavor of our times and address the interconnection between our secret motives and our public politics,” according to the publisher of Hare’s The Vertical Hour, the complex and multi-layered play, which is now appearing in a searing, riveting production in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Series.

The Rep’s production of The Vertical Hour, masterfully directed by Jim O’Connor, features an outstanding cast and a script that is as fresh and disturbing as today’s headlines about the Iraq war, and as thought-provoking as the best available books and articles about interpersonal relationships.

Fans of The New Jewish Theatre were treated to an excellent production of Hare’s controversial and disturbing autobiograhpical play, Via Dolorosa, which retold the narrative of Hare’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

What pleased many within the audiences for Via Dolorosa was Hare’s avoidance of smugly one-sided depictions of either the Israelis or the Palestinians. The play, based on Hare’s own encounters in the region, included both desirable and undesirable, heroic and corrupt political leaders and individuals among both the Israelis and the Palestinians. While Hare does not disguise his own general tilt towards the political left, he does not “stack the deck” either in favor of his viewpoints or against the views of the other side.

The title of The Vertical Hour is derived from a term coined by medics during World War I, referring to the critical importance of providing immediate first aid to war casualties before the end of the “vertical hour.” If the care was prompt, most could be saved; if not, a huge percentage perished. Nadia Blye is the main character in The Vertical Hour, superbly acted by Gloria Biegler. We meet her when she is teaching political studies to callow students at Yale, but yearns for the excitement she had previously felt as a war correspondent in both the Balkans and the Middle East.

Both radiantly beautiful and brilliant, Blye is a bundle of contradictions — an Ivy League professor and feminist who was and continues to be a strong supporter of the war in Iraq. Those exciting and adventurous memories haunt Nadia when she travels with her quiet, steady-Eddie boyfriend, Philip Lucas (Jeremiah Wiggins in a restrained, believable performance) to rural England to visit his father Oliver (Anderson Matthews in an absolutely pitch-perfect performance). Oliver, a 58-year-old former star surgeon, now divorced from his emotionally troubled wife, lives in self-imposed, quiet isolation on the border between England and Wales.

If former House Speaker Tip O’Neill believed that “all politics is local,” David Hare surely believes that “all politics is personal.” No contemporary playwright so skillfully weaves together the lives of his characters, all of whom are interesting and complex, with the interesting and complex events unfolding in the “real world” around them.

At the outset, Nadia must at the same time argue global politics and economics with the combative student Dennis (Brian White), and in the concluding conference, with student Terri (Jamie Conception), she must work with the complex thoughts and emotions expressed in Terri’s essay, while attempting to comfort Terri, who has been recently harshly dumped by her boyfriend.

In the course of the play, we learn that Nadia truly loved being a war correspondent during the war in the Balkans. She passionately belived that it was entirely correct to use force to oust Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic from power as president of Yugoslavia because of the genocidal policy of “ethnic cleansing.” She also fully supported the invasion of Iraq, even consulting in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush as an academic supporter of intervention.

On the one hand, we have the cool, academically sober Nadia Blye, using pure intellect to examine the “science” part of political science. On the other hand, there was the wild, adventuresome Nadia, who was admittedly “addicted to the violence” during the wars she covered as a journalist, even after 77 of her colleagues had been killed in the fighting and chaos.

In addition to the political contests and battles, we learn of the ongoing wars between Philip and his father, Oliver, who had for years had a string of flagrant affairs with his wife, insisting that they had an “open marriage” long after his wife had opted out of that lifestyle.

Philip refuses to reconcile with his father, who at one time tells him that “one should not be on his deathbed hating his father.” Was Oliver more fully “alive” and engaged when he juggled marriage, career and multiple affairs? Or is he better off living in quiet solitude in rural England, reading poetry and staying out of trouble? Was Nadia Blye “better off” personally and professionally dodging bullets in Bosnia and Baghdad, or dodging advances and verbal assaults from her students on the placid, green campus of Yale University?

Hare does not spoon-feed the answers to the questions his characters grapple with. He has the courage to challenge his audiences to follow the brainy, idea-filled dialogue and to come to its own conclusions.

Nobody has a monopoly on all the good lines or ideas. Oliver does a superb job of demolishing the rationale for the war in Iraq, while Nadia makes a compelling case for intervention to stop mass murder in places like Bosnia, Saddam’s Iraq or Darfur. Does anyone have a monopoly on all the good ideas? Is truth in love or war ever absolute, or does ambiguity infuse every event in our personal lives and in the world of politics and war. We learn that Oliver’s previous life was turned upside down in a single moment that resulted in tragedy; we have also seen countless examples in history of similar unintended events that spin out of control and end up in fullscale war.

In the skilled hands of Director Jim O’Connor and the top-notch cast, and with solid production values from the stage, design, costume and lighting crews, The Vertical Hour is truly a must-see at The Rep’s Studio series, now in its 30th year of showcasing important, cutting edge productions.

The Vertical Hour is at The Rep’s Studio Theatre through Feb. 3. For additional information, or to purchase tickets, visits The Rep’s Box Office, charge by phone at 314-968-4925, or visit The Rep online at www.repstl.org.

Published Jan. 23, 2008

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