This feels familiar, I thought, just a few minutes into Playhouse Rep's "Heads" in the small Studio Theatre at the Playhouse. I've seen it before, a play about hostages or prisoners of war. In Afghanistan? Iraq 2? Iraq 1? Vietnam? Maybe more than one play?
It's not a tired plot -- not at all -- but it's one suggested to our playwrights all too often: American soldiers/civilians held prisoner/hostage in an undeclared foreign war. It's the occasion that's depressing and the foreign policy behind it, not the play.
And certainly not the dramatic situation, which is ready-made for a play: tight quarters, small cast, the terror of the unknown, intense exposition, concise dramatic arc and the rapidly approaching end, either tragedy or release or perhaps something in between.
EM Lewis' "Heads," which premiered in 2007, is set in Iraq in March 2004, 10 months after President George W. Bush declared victory. If you are 30 or more -- perhaps less -- there's no way you can watch without your opinions about that war and its messy, endless follow-up coming into play.
But the play itself does little directly to invoke all that, alluding to it mainly with Jessi Sedon-Essad's harrowing inter-scene videos of hostages being abused, put blindfolded on display, etc. Inevitably, the specific political situation being so murky, the larger issues so far away and our own political opinions and feelings so impotent, the play becomes intensely personal, with an unrelenting focus on the four hostages.
They are held in pairs in separate, noncommunicating cells by unnamed "insurgents." There are three men -- an engineer, a freelance photographer and a network journalist, all Americans -- and one woman -- a clerk in the British embassy. Under the pressures of terror, deprivation (one blanket per pair, limited water and food) and irregular interrogations and beatings, each divulges some background to his or her cell mate. But how much? Are the cells bugged? Might one be a CIA agent? There's a lot they and we don't know, including the chances of escape and what outside forces may do to free them.
The effect is both oppressive and terrifying, with very occasional (believe it or not) sparks of humor. It's taut at just 105 minutes, intermission included, but I wouldn't want it to be any longer.
The four are given persuasive performances by this professional company led by the intense direction of the indefatigable John Shepard. Tony Bingham is the inexperienced network journalist, often on the edge of hysteria, and Patrick Cannon is the more aggressive, resourceful photographer. In the other cell, James FitzGerald is the engineer who has already been held for many months (although time becomes as fuzzy for us as it is for them). Understandably, he's the most terrorized of all. Diana Ifft is the Brit, the most resilient or perhaps innocent, being the least likely to be executed.
It's a skilled, fine production by Point Park's professional company. Britton Mauk's set suggests claustrophobia, aided by Todd Wren's darkly atmospheric lights and especially Steve Shapiro's sound, which allows the four to hear just enough from beyond their walls to heighten their fears.
For us, what's right there in front of us is harrowing enough.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.