By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
No one’s going to accuse playwright Stephen Belber of shying away from difficult topics in his new play We Are Among Us, making its world premiere at City Theatre.
We Are Among Us continues through June 2. City Theatre, South Side. 412-431-CITY. www.citytheatrecompany.org
The story centers on Laura, a single mother living in Northern Virginia with her teenage son Beau. She now works in real estate … but eight years ago she was a military contractor and one night when she was staying at an Army base in Afghanistan, an Afghani man was tortured by U.S. military personnel and ended up dead. Laura wasn’t involved, but her testimony given at the time may not have been complete. There was an investigation in which the American military members were all cleared.
She’s buried those memories, along with most of her emotions, and has lived a fairly anonymous and numbed life with her son. Until …
When one of those men decides to run for office an enterprising journalist, Shar, begins looking into the killing. As unpleasant as she is relentless, Shar reaches out to Laura for information and comment, which stirs up a number of emotional sleeping dogs. Laura reaches out to Taylor, another of the Army special forces guys, for advice and commiseration.
Shar has also connected with Khadija, the daughter of the man killed in Afghanistan. She now lives in the States, the government’s way of trying to make up for happened to her father, and has been working on starting a new life. Shar’s appearance in Khadija’s world is upsetting a few of the internal bargains she has made with herself.
We Are Among Us is reminding us that borders and oceans and continents can sometimes hide, but never negate, the inescapable fact of our connections with each other. At its heart, Belber’s play is an exploration of that old “if a butterfly flaps it’s wings in Singapore there’ll be rain in Vermont” bromide.
It’s a taut tale, really a longish one-act, with Belber creating five fiercely intelligent characters to tell his story. Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt brings that same fierce intelligence to this City Theater premiere in an immaculate production staged on Narelle Sissons’ arresting set featuring an immediate and defining lighting design by Andrew David Ostrowski.
Nilanjana Bose, Kyle Haden, Jo Mei, Lisa Velten Smith and Eric Wiegand (Khadija, Taylor, Shar, Laura and Beau respectively) are all interlocking parts of an intense and complex machine. There’s a seamless quality to the work which Campbell-Holt and her company place on stage, highlighting the inevitable slide-to-disaster fueling Belber’s script.
The evening is an interesting one, with everyone working at the top of their game. And if you don’t look too closely, We Are Among Us does what it sets out to do.
The problem, or maybe I should say my problem, is that I didn’t buy a second of it. Not that any of its bad, it’s just that all of it is incredibly theatrical. I know, an odd charge to level at a theatrical work, but we’re meant, I think, to be struck by the throbbing humanity of the piece, yet each moment feels like it’s been cultivated in a theatrical laboratory. All five characters seem created only to serve the function of dramatic polarity and there’s a studied, and shared, elliptical quality to all their dialogue.
I found the relationship between Laura and her son Beau unlike any parent/child relationship seen since the beginning of time. They actually talk like a divorced couple (which is kinda weird) and as someone who raised a teenage boy I can guarantee you there’s not a teenage boy in the world who knows as many words as Beau does or, if he does, wouldn’t cut out his tongue before he’d use them in public.
There’s also the issue of very smart people repeatedly doing stupid things … only because if they don’t the play would be over. Just to point up one instance, in a world of smart phones young people wouldn’t cross the street to talk to each other, let alone the country.
For me, We Are Among Us has plenty to recommend itself, but I can’t say that Belber has knocked this one out of the park.