Adapting his play from Sophocles' Philoctetes, Heaney has staked out some challenging turf -- empire and war, loyalty and betrayal, hope and healing. Director Tina Landau and her powerful cast grab hold of the work with a bold, muscular approach that counterbalances Heaney's poetic language. For every kick in the stomach, there's a sweet word or haunting note to soften the blow.
The volcanic island is Lemnos, and its sole inhabitant is Philoctetes (the simply stunning Boris McGiver), a former soldier in the Trojan War, crippled by a horribly wounded foot that just won't heal. His fellow Greeks, led by Odysseus (Hans Altweis, who should patent his lordly swagger), dumped him here a decade ago to escape his moans and the stench of rotting flesh.
Philoctetes has spent the intervening years scratching out an existence and nursing his anger until, one day, the Greeks come calling again. Odysseus is back not with an apology, but an agenda. In the midst of the bogged-down Trojan War, a prophecy has revealed that the Greeks will never take Troy unless Philoctetes rejoins them -- and brings the magic bow and arrows he inherited from Hercules.
Crafty Odysseus sends young Neoptolemus (the winsome Seth Numrick) to do his dirty work and trick Philoctetes into handing over the goods. But there's just one catch: Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, has a conscience. Try as he might, he just can't follow his commander's slippery moral example.
On stage, the palate is stark -- charcoal grays and blacks against the white rocks that threaten to tumble into the audience's lap. A chorus of three agile men (Guy Adkins, Ben Gonio, and Jon Michael Hill) build a beautiful bridge of meaning between gods and mortals. Outfitted in big black boots, clambering up and down the steep volcano, they sing the story down to us in haunting, clear voices. Their sharp, stylized gestures -- pounding, reaching, holding -- grow strangely mesmerizing with each repetition.
Looking like a cross between a homeless person and a wild-eyed mountain man, McGiver drags his body across the rocks, contorting it into raw fits of rage and pain. But as he wrestles over moral issues with Neoptolemus, a choice emerges: Whether to stay loyal to the wound that's poisoning him or trust that there's healing to be had in Troy. In a final crescendo of blinding orange light, the volcano rumbles and Hercules intervenes to guide Philoctetes' course.
The Greek gods may not speak directly to us in our day-to-day lives any longer, but we've got the next-best thing in this bold, masterful stroke of theater.