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Hostage – Theatre Review: iTheatre Collaborative, Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Theatre, Phoenix

At the beginning of playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks’ real-life drama Hostage, once his hood is removed by his Iranian captors, the first face Sgt. Kevin Hermening sees is his mother’s, and he can’t believe it. “Can’t you untie his hands?” the distraught mother asks his guard.

The enlisted marine from Wisconsin was the youngest of the hostages held captive for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, during the Iran Hostage Crisis. His mother Barbara Timm ignored the wishes of President Carter and flew to Tehran on her own accord to see if his captors, the Iranian college students who supported the Revolution, would allow her to visit her son. They did. The meeting, under strict supervision, lasted 45 minutes.

While based on fact, Kholos Brooks’ play is an imagined account of what was said during that exchange, and every second is emotionally charged. But the play, now in performance at Herberger Theater Center’s intimate Kax Theatre until February 2 and presented by iTheatre Collaborative, isn’t simply about those 45 minutes. There’s so much more to consider, making the impact of what Hostage is really about all the more important. Here’s why.

Presented with a small cast of six who never leave the stage, Hostage takes place in two settings at two different times, yet their telling runs parallel. The first setting is in Tehran where Barbara (Marlene Galan-Woods) is taken to see her marine son Kevin (Jacob Nichols). The second is sometime later, back at the Timm’s Oak Creek home where angry mobs, motivated by a surging sense of patriotism and anti-Iranian feelings, have gathered outside of the house to protest and to throw bricks through Barbara’s windows. The reason for their anger has nothing to do with her going against the government’s wishes by flying to Iran, it’s what Barbara said on television once she returned.

Barbara’s knowledge of what was happening on the other side of the world came from the same source as everyone else’s – either through government announcements or the commentary of the media. She was not political. From her point-of-view, the Iranian students were terrorists and anarchists; their actions evil and unjust. All that concerned her was the welfare of her son, nothing more. “It’s not my revolution,” she tells the machine gun wielding guard, Ebrahim (Xavier Morris). “I’m from Wisconsin.”

But if there’s one thing that Barbara learned from her overseas flight, other than her son was still alive, was that no situation is ever as black and white as initially perceived. By seeing Iran for herself and meeting the angry students, she was able to put a human face to what was portrayed as a faceless vengeful mob. Plus it was painfully evident that what was happening now was the end result of years of western support to the Shah, a man who lived in opulence at the expense of his subjects and who ruled by cruelty and fear with the aid of his secret police.

Though not expressed in the play, when those students surged the U.S. Embassy and took the hostages, an act inspired by President Carter’s willingness to accept the deposed Shah into the country for cancer treatment, they raided top secret papers and files and declared they had proof that the cruel tactics of the Shah’s secret police involving kidnapping, torture, and often murder, were trained by the United States. Aware of our years of involvement, Barbara declared on American TV her views on what she considered to be the ineptitude of the United States Government. The woman who spat on Barbara at the supermarket and the angry mob that threw bricks through her window called her a traitor, angered with what they viewed as the mother’s newfound sympathy for the Iranian students.

But make no mistake. Seeing her son with a hood over his head and his hands tied while being pushed around by guards with guns shouting at both him and her in a language that made the Iranians sound perpetually angry and dangerous did not elicit sympathy. And it didn’t help that they insisted her son was a ‘guest’ and not a hostage. But she had an understanding, and there’s a huge difference. “The final insult is you give refuge to the Shah,” states the student’s female interpreter Masoumeh Ebtekar dubbed Tehran Mary by the media (Elizabeth Broeder). “Your pain justifies my son’s pain?” asks the distraught mother. “Yes,” replies the interpreter.

By having everyone on stage at the same time, the play can jump from one time to another in an instant, giving us the ability to draw immediate parallels between the events of the two locations – the mobs in the streets of Tehran, their wrath fueled by an anger against a superpower whose influence in their country benefited a dictator at the expense of the people, and those in a Milwaukee suburb, their anger fueled by an unquestioning patriotism, with Barbara, her husband Kenny (Glenn Parker) and Barbara’s not altogether understanding ex-husband Richard (Walt Pedano) in the middle.

But amid the anger, there’s often humor. Through theatrical creativity and invention, characters seated in one setting occasionally comment on what they’re witnessing in the other. When Barbara’s ex-husband in Wisconsin talks of the female interpreter he’s seen on television news, he describes her as “The bitch who speaks good English.” “I can see why you divorced him,” responds a sardonic Tehran Mary.

Another of the play’s strength is how writer Kholos Brooks manages to instill a constant sense of tension. We know that the hostages will eventually be freed and that Sgt. Kevin Hermening returned, but somehow during those moments in the darkened room where a bound, disheveled, and shoeless hostage is pushed around, there’s always an ever-present sense of danger, an uncomfortable feeling that at any moment, something horrible is about to happen to him.

With a running time of 85 minutes, no intermission, Christopher Haines directs with clear, unfussy blocking. Even though the scenes jump from one location to another and characters either face the audience with a statement that is being read on TV or they comment to each other from one time setting to the other, there’s never a doubt as to what is being said, where, and to whom.

All six performers are well cast. Jacob Nichols as the marine is particularly convincing. As a lover of baseball, his single moment of joy when his mother tells him that Bud Selig, the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, has declared that upon his return he could throw out the first ball is hugely effective. His delight in knowing that the famous GM of his favorite team has actually talked about him is almost palpable. It’s as if for just a moment he’s forgotten where he is.

But this is beyond a doubt Marlene Galan-Woods’ play. Last year, valley audiences were treated to the actor as the wife of a southern politician in Church and State. There she was great. Here she’s extraordinary in a role that any and every mother will relate. In Mrs. Timm’s understanding of Iran, with a performance that persuasively displays anger, frustration, fear, confusion, and even heartache without the histrionics that a lesser talent could have so easily fallen back upon, Galan-Woods makes us understand Mrs. Timm. The real Barbara Timm saw the play when it was premiered last year in Los Angeles.  There’s no way of knowing if she’ll ever see herself portrayed in this excellent Phoenix valley production before it closes. I suspect that if she does, she’ll be as impressed by Marlen Galan-Woods as you will be.

Hostage presented by iTheatre Collaborative continues at Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Theatre until February 2

Pictures Courtesy of Christopher Haines

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