‘Homebody/Kabul’ at Steppenwolf

In an interview on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, playwright Tony Kushner said of his play written before Sept. 11, 2001, “I didn’t imagine when I was working on the play that by the time we produced it, the United States would be at war with Afghanistan.”

The gripping story of an English woman’s preoccupation with Kabul, her disappearance, and global politics is as timely as the latest news. Kushner’s characters encounter a culture so different, that only conflict can result. Rife with wars, the countries of the Middle East turn to radical solutions. Fundamentalists seem to offer relief as does the Taliban. A world away, an English housewife reads an old guidebook and becomes enthralled with a Kabul that no longer exists.

Amy Morton sits in a wing chair perusing her book and sharing her dreams with us. An hour later she leaves the stage and we are left wondering. Her fate is never completely resolved. Not once during her lengthy monologue did I consult my watch.

The curtain rises on a ruined city, shattered windows, falling walls, the devastation of war. Milton Ceiling (Reed Birney) and his daughter Pricilla (Elizabeth Ledo) occupy a dingy hotel in Kabul. The shadow of Pricilla behind a curtain tells us the fate of women in a male dominated society. The Mullah, Aasif Mandvi, explains in detail the lot of wife and mother. The question remains. Ledo’s anger and disbelief lead to a search; and a chance encounter with a poet, who becomes her guide, carries the plot to its conclusion.

Birney, as a father and husband denying his complicity, finds a companion in Quango Twistleton played by Tracy Letts. A disenfranchised Englishman, Letts finds the availability of drugs so tempting, the dangers of Kabul seem insignificant.

Steppenwolf’s daring undertakings are legendary. Homebody/Kabul represents another example of risky productions. Kushner’s four-hour play kept nearly everyone in his or her seat. Faith in Kushner and Director Frank Galati emboldened Martha Lavey, artistic director in this enterprise. Chicago theaters, especially Steppenwolf, have become a place for new works to evolve.

The women in Homebody/Kabul move silently across the stage, their identity shielded in burkahs. Only one Afghani refuses to be silenced. Diana Simonzadeh as Mahala screams her defiance. A librarian whose books have been destroyed, her portrayal signifies the role of women rejecting domination.

Playing through Aug. 31, Homebody/Kabul deserves four hours of your time. Call 312-335-1650 for tickets.

Note: A week at the lake offers limited television viewing, which is not bad. PBS programming is excellent and we were fortunate enough to see The Boston Pops with Marin Mazzie performing the music of Jerry Herman. Herman also played and sang the numbers that have made him famous. Mame, Hello Dolly, and Mack and Mabel gave us some of the most memorable songs of the last 30 years.

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