Whether through videos of terrorists and their hostages, reports of suicide bombings, or news broadcasts on the seemingly irreconcilable battle between Islamic sects, Americans are bombarded with the painful imagery of the Middle East. In Sinan Ünel’s newest work, The Cry of the Reed, at Boston’s Huntington Theatre, the playwright tries to offer a different perspective by pairing up two stories. One plot follows a journalist and her colleague, abducted by extremists in Iraq; the other follows the journalist’s mother, in Turkey, as she prepares to celebrate Rumi, the great Sufi poet and philosopher.
“I didn’t grow up religious, but the philosophy of Rumi — which is a humanitarian aspect of Islam about tolerance — was always in the background,” Ünel explains. “The play is about the two aspects of any religion, really — the very personal, private aspect about love, tolerance and acceptance, and what happens when it becomes social and political, with violence and intolerance.”
Ünel was inspired to start work on this piece in 2004 by something he read in The New York Times. “I’d been thinking about writing a historical play about Rumi’s life when I ran into an article about a young Turkish journalist who’d been abducted in Iraq with a Canadian colleague,” he says. “In the play, the two stories evolve at the same time. By putting them on stage together, there is an interaction between these two aspects of a religion. How it is in some ways essential, and in other ways so destructive.”
Tennessee Williams’ Candles to the Sun isn’t very well known, despite the fame of its author. “It was the first full-length play that he wrote under Thomas Lanier Williams,” says Steven Fedoruk, who is directing the work’s Chicago premiere for Eclipse Theatre Company. “It’s this little gem that was produced in St. Louis in 1937 by a community/amateur organization called The Mummers. It was lost for nearly 50 years, and resurfaced in the 1980s through a woman that played one of the roles in that production.”
Candles is set during the Great Depression, and spans a decade in the lives of three generations of miners in the Red Hills of Alabama as they attempt to unionize. “It’s a play with ten scenes, each one almost a play by itself,” says Fedoruk. “Collectively, they tell this amazing story with a lot of humor. But the key factor for me is Williams’ wonderful poetry that weaves throughout and is one of the heightened elements of the piece.”
Fedoruk is confident that the play holds up on its own merits, and that audience members who are only familiar with the playwright’s more well-known works like The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire will enjoy the production. “There’s this incredible metaphor of light and dark, good and evil, with the miners being called rats under ground in the darkness and the cabins being lit by a single lamp,” he states. “Even back then, Williams was giving directors, actors, and designers these incredible tools to paint epic tapestries of beautiful stories.”
“It seems like there are two experiences in the United States. There are those with loved ones and family members over in Iraq and there are those that don’t have a connection with anyone in the service,” says director Michael Bigelow Dixon of Jessica Goldberg’s new play, Ward 57, which is getting its world premiere at Florida Stage.
The play follows Wendy, a Hollywood screenwriter, who goes undercover at Walter Reed Army Medical Center claiming to be a film researcher. “A lot of the films about war sometimes come out as a polemic against the war. On stage, it’s a lot easier to have an intellectual argument,” reflects Goldberg. Yet, far from being a preach-to-the-choir tirade, some of Ward 57‘s harshest criticism is reserved for anti-war filmmakers. “I think I was a little unfair to Hollywood,” she says.
In her own research, Goldberg visited a school where over 70 percent of the students had family serving in Iraq. “Kids would tell me they get angry when they see anti-war protests, because, ‘they’re protesting against my dad.’ I was one of those people who marched against the war,” she admits. How does she feel about the whole situation now? “It’s a lot more complicated,” she says. “We definitely should not have gone there in the first place. How do we get out? I don’t have the answer.”