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EM Lewis' world premiere is an extremely effective exploration of what it means to be tortured. logo
Jeremy Gabriel, J. Richey Nash, James Eckhouse,
and Beth Broderick in Heads
(© Rick Baumgartner)
Well, my head still hurts from the world premiere production of Heads, and I hold the Blank Theatre personally responsible for the pain. I also blame playwright EM Lewis, director Darin Anthony, and actors Jeremy Gabriel, J. Richey Nash, James Eckhouse, and Beth Broderick for forcing upon me an hour and a half of torture. Of course, my emotional (and occasionally physical) discomfort was their clear intention, so one must rise above the headache to admire the group's level of success in inflicting it.

Set in 2004 Iraq, Heads takes us into the fear-filled world of psychological torture: the head games employed -- and enjoyed -- by ruthless terrorists in pursuit of cowing the world to their vision of what it should be. The focus is entirely on four victims, all of whom have been brutally kidnapped and thrown into a pair of tiny dank cells in an old Iraqi warehouse. (The appropriately claustrophobic set design is by Dan Jenkins.)

In one cell are Jack (Gabriel), a wild spirit freelance photojournalist with the attention span of a gnat, and Michael (Nash), a handsome network reporter who is rather unseasoned when it comes to this level of news coverage. Jack has been in Iraq for a couple of years; Michael just a couple of weeks. In another cell, terrorists throw in British Embassy worker Caroline (Broderick), her hands and feet bound with duct tape, and her mouth covered as well. Her cell mate is Harold (Eckhouse), an engineer who builds bridges. Harold's name is familiar to Caroline; he had been in the news since his capture six months ago, and a video of him had recently been released by his captors.

Lewis' intermissionless piece covers several weeks of the prisoners' incarceration, and focuses on where the head itself -- and the heart's response to the head -- take people when faced with such a desperate situation. Jack is a self-motivated guy, willing to try anything to escape, and he actually finds a possible means of escape. The terrified Michael believes they'll be killed in the attempt, and tries to convince Jack not to take the risk. But when he and Harold are dragged from their cells; forced, at gunpoint, to make another video; and threatened with an extremely nasty death, he finally agrees to take action.

Harold and Caroline have a different kind of emotional response -- reaching out to each other for comfort. Having been a prisoner already for months, Harold teaches Caroline what to say and do to stay as safe as possible. And it works for awhile, until the inevitable finally happens.

Anthony keeps the tension high and allows spots of humor to break it for a bare breath of a moment. Media designer Rick Baumgartner created the entirely disturbing video sequences, and Dave Mickey's creepy sound design and John Eckert's stark lighting are chillingly effective.

Anthony also elicits fine performances from his cast -- particularly from Gabriel's Jack, whose desperation and smart-ass attitude naturally makes him a more colorful figure. Gabriel is well up to the challenge, keeping Jack human and relatable in spite of his abrasiveness. Nash provides a strong balance in the more stable-minded Michael, but also capably conveys his terror as their situation grows more dire. Broderick and Eckhouse are able to give us a bit of the softer side, and demonstrate how sometimes a comforting word or embrace is all that can keep you from slipping completely into insanity.

Lewis' script, while somewhat predictable in places, nevertheless takes the audience to a dangerous place that most will never experience, but of which they need to be made aware. Unimaginable torture is happening in the world, in real life. And for the victim, sometimes the worse torture is the not knowing what will happen, and the dark places the head can take you when knowledge and freedom are withheld.

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