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Lee Haven-Jones in
The Pull of Negative Gravity
(Photo © Geraint Lewis)
During World War I, it was known as shell shock. By the Vietnam War, the more polite term being used was Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTST). But it's the same infernal affliction -- and some people maintain that though PTST is widely prevalent today both in Iraq and among returnees from the besieged country, it's greatly under-reported.

Jonathan Lichtenstein hasn't waited for thorough accounts and studies; his spanking-fresh play The Pull of Negative Gravity is ripped from the headlines that aren't. The tough-minded four-hander, in which one of the characters is suffering severely from physical and mental wounds inflicted in Iraq, premiered last August at the Edinburgh Festival -- less than a year and a half after combat began. Indeed, the sizzling script had a reading at London's National Theatre in January 2004, indicating that Lichtenstein didn't wait long to get mad as hell and to become unwilling to take it anymore. No, it's beyond that; he seems to have been determined not to take it at all, from the minute that British Prime Minister Tony Blair decided to support the Bush administration's Middle East preemptive tactic.

Lichtenstein has funneled his white-hot fury into a play about a Welsh soldier who leaves for Iraq after conducting a game of chance with his brother and returns with injuries far surpassing what his brother, mother, and fiancée have been told he's endured. The old homestead to which Dai (Lee Haven-Jones) has returned is a failing farm in a windswept part of the country where stony promontories abound. Dai's mom Vi (Joanne Haworth), whose husband drowned relatively recently, hasn't wanted to sell the property and has been supported in her decision by her other son, Rhys (Daniel Hawksford). The family's state of affairs is further complicated by the fact that Rhys is in love with Dai's intended, Bethan (Louise Collins), a burn-unit nurse.

What Lichtenstein knows is that families have enough internal strife to keep them preoccupied, and they certainly don't need wars to complicate their lives further. Vi is so worried about paying bills she has taken a job stuffing envelopes. (She's sending out scratch-cards but has been informed she's only mailing losing cards, which is a symbolic tip-off to her own lot in life.) While Rhys loves his brother, he's also persistently in love with Bethan; they've had a one-time fling that he'd like to repeat and she hopes not to. Her feelings change when Dai comes back in his damaged condition and Bethan realizes that she can't cope.

Talk about your lose-lose situations! This quartet has a passel of them, which are eventually worked out -- if that's the right way to put it -- to no one's satisfaction. No unadulterated blessings are conferred on Vi or on Bethan and Rhys, whose eventual marriage has little future. Just as the losing scratch-cards stand for unrelenting bad luck, the large stones strewn around the countryside and the small stones that Vi keeps in a tin both represent unrelieved grief. The only hope for momentary abatement of grief is in being held, and Lichtenstein's play features a great deal of that -- but it doesn't help for long.

This depressing fact calls attention to the crack in Lichtenstein's stony piece. "The pull of negative gravity" refers to more than the forces working on the beset characters; the author is so resolutely pulled to be negative that his resulting pull on the play's strings is all too clear. Whereas tragedy should feel inevitable, Lichtenstein's accumulation of personal tragedies eventually feels forced. It's as if he's so outraged over the Iraq quagmire that not only does he disdain any inclination to humor, but he's also lost control of how he can best express his anger. (My guess is that he fiercely repudiated Tony Blair in the election earlier this month by voting the Liberal Democrat ticket.) There's no denying that his play is effective -- audience members leave blanched -- but at the expense of the sort of reality found anywhere outside the Book of Job.

With Gregory Thompson's firm direction and under Robin Carter's properly gloomy lighting, the actors gamely go with the dire flow -- particularly the dark-haired, pale-skinned Haven-Jones as a damaged man failing to achieve any peace with himself. Haworth, Collins, and Hawksford also etch anguish on their faces with the skill of master painters. Their pull is positive in a play that could use just a smidgen less negative thinking.

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