There are massive tragedies that have defined recent history, and it has taken years for people to begin to allow them into their consciousness, to find the language to help admit them. However, no matter how sophisticated we pretend to be, words like suicide bombers, biological warfare and chemical weapons perplex us. They are strange indeed.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons May Nazareno's one-woman play "Dead Woman Home," which centers on the experiences of Marilyn Martin, a Filipino American aide presumed dead during the 2003 bombing of UN Headquarters in Iraq, is so effective. Nazareno does not pretend that these words are not strange. Rather, the play is epitomized by characters grappling to find language to both describe the bombing and to help them process what has happened to their loved ones.
It is through endeavors like Nazareno's that we can begin to understand the toll these events have taken on our lives.
Nazareno drew her inspiration from the work of Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright-actress who dramatized interviews taken with real people affected by events like the 1992 LA riots following the police beating of Rodney King. Smith's work brought the Southern California turmoil to the stage sentence for sentence, pause for pause, inflection for inflection. Nazareno interviewed Marilyn Martin, who was presumed dead and later found to be alive, along with several of her relatives in New York about the bombing and its aftermath.
The result is an intimacy with real-life people affected by the bombing that can't be glimpsed through the two dimensions of newspapers or television screens. Stunning footage of the bombing clipped from international newsreels and projected onstage enhances the character's experience. Rather than overshadowing the work as visual media is wont to do in theatrical settings, the footage, chosen by video designer Mark Ramquist, helps to humanize the events surrounding the bombing and bring them into perspective. Each clip, sometimes visual and other times vocally arresting, packs a punch.
Nazareno created Victoria Burns, a fictionalized reporter, to confront chief governmental officials on the screen. Burns is portrayed as a hungry yet fallible journalist whose poignant questions force politicians to stop shadowboxing the truth, and help to reveal some of the more brutal, soul-stomping realities of war. Through this technique audience members are able to see nuances of events they may have been unable to acknowledge before.
Likewise Nazareno chose apt segments of the families' interviews to mold into the play. Probably everyone watching television Sept. 11, 2001 can relate to the anger Marilyn's sister feels when she turns off the television set because she cannot take it anymore. Her brother admits to drugging himself to sleep through the waiting period after the UN bombing. Marilyn's mother, after learning that her mother may be alive, was confronted by journalists. She struggles to define how she feels, but all she could get out was that what she was feeling was not normal. That type of frustration reinforces the point of the play.
Nazareno, a native New Yorker and Filipino American, admits she had not been able to forge connection to either the events following Sept. 11 or the Filipino community before researching and writing the play. At times her delivery is rushed and seems to reveal that she is still uncomfortable with some of the material. She does not always embody the characters physically. Sometimes their response to the tragedy is too frenzied, too large, which undermines their emotions and makes it difficult to emphasize the scene's points.
Fortunately, these moments are balanced with other periods when Nazareno relaxes into the material. At these times she takes in the character's breath, toys with the fourth wall, and forges a connection with the audience so stunning, so heartfelt, one feels almost as if the characters are beseeching us to help understand.
This is why "Dead Woman Home" is worth seeing. The audience is allowed to recall the event with Nazareno, who is processing the memories of the affected families with the simple aid of the audience's presence.
Ultimately, the audience is left with little choice but to admit the impact of the dramatized memories. The most astonishing moment of the performance occurs near the end, when the stage is darkened and Nazareno is inundated with the names of all the real people who died during the bombing. As she is forced to face these names, so is the audience.
If "Dead Woman Home" were a traditional play, the characters might not have enough depth to sustain the hours. But it is not a traditional play. It is a political play, a play which depicts events so large, so surreal, everyone involved - the families, the actress and the audience - must be incorporated to remember details that may have otherwise escaped us.
"Dead Woman Home" plays through Oct. 3 at. Freehold's East Hall Theatre, 1525 10th Ave., second floor. For more info, call 325-6500.