Timing isn’t everything in the theater, but it can’t have hurt the impact of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s latest play, which is that rare script to merit the dreaded adjective “important.” For there, on the same evening as “Credible Witness” was having its second night, was a headline in the Sun newspaper screaming the following would-be alarm: “Lunatic asylum,” the tabloid blared, adding for emphasis, “3,200 new illegal immigrants set up home in Great Britain every month. Just 12 a month are booted out.” If the tiny Royal Court Jerwood Theater Upstairs were any bigger, one would be tempted to buy out the house in order to frog-march the scaremongering press to Wertenbaker’s play. Instead, one can only be grateful for the calming, often very moving presence of “Credible Witness” amid such hysterical times: For all its talk about the weight of history, the play resonates most fully to the here and now.
Not, it must be said, that the emotions on offer in Sacha Wares’ production are in any way becalmed. With an able cast headed by Olympia Dukakis in fine and furious form, “Credible Witness” is a notably prickly and angry play, possessed of a power you can’t quite shake off. Its rage, however, is of the sort that aims to find kindness and amity against the odds even when daily life has other ideas. Society, or what these days passes for it, may be ready to turn a heartless eye, but Wertenbaker plows on regardless, lending via her play a welcome to those very worlds that the Sun would like to see (at least from Britain) snuffed out.
The play’s scenario is primal, involving as it does an anguished mother’s search for her errant son; the specifics are what make “Credible Witness” seem unusually fresh. Dukakis’ Petra Karagy is a proud, fiercely spoken Macedonian being held in detention at Heathrow Airport, having traveled to Britain in pursuit of a son, Alexander (Adam Kotz), whom she hasn’t seen in three years. His name invokes a noble pedigree — Petra claims a family lineage dating back to Alexander the Great — and so the young man’s mother will not be put off her task. “Life is gray,” says Simon (Clive Merrison), the London official in charge of her case, but Petra simply won’t be swayed from a cause that any mother would view as black-and-white. She must find her son, even if the sight of a teacher-turned-street cleaner is unlikely to be a parent’s dream.
The reunion does happen, but not according to plan, and Wertenbaker is on tricky ground in a face-off that sacrifices plausibility to grandstanding: Dukakis at the eye-popping extremes that her skillful performance otherwise avoids. Prior to that, announcing to Simon that “a mother’s heart shivers day and night,” the actress locates that corner of human behavior where logic becomes unmoored from feeling. Embarked on a hunger strike in order to make her point, Petra is pride and determination embodied — so much so that the flesh-and-blood reality of Alexander ends up, in a fascinating irony, to be a disappointment compared with her invocation of him in the abstract.
With two generations of displaced people at its tumultuous core, “Credible Witness” widens its scope, sketching in the bruised backgrounds of those other asylum-seekers who have found Britain offering a none-too-beaming welcome. They include Aziz (Anthony Barclay), an Algerian always sure that his head is (literally) elsewhere, and Shivan (Vincent Ebrahim), the Tamil doctor who helps pass his time in detention by reading “Paradise Lost” for the third time. (Back in his native Sri Lanka, he says sorrowfully, he thought — wrongly — that his medical expertise would keep him safe.)
The temptation in another writer’s hands might be to caricature the bureaucrats, but Wertenbaker thankfully refuses to demonize the officials in the foreigners’ midst. As played by the ever-invaluable Merrison, Simon is less the officious functionary than a man trying to get through a difficult job with a minimum of decency, on New Year’s Eve no less. The same is true of Paul (Paul Bhattacharjee), an attendant who admits that “it’s not professional to be nice.”
At times, “Credible Witness” gets bogged down in theoretical debates over the onus posed by the past — the nationalism/assimilationism argument doesn’t pan out in theatrical terms — and lines like “He had a history of history” don’t help. But it’s hard not to admire a play that engages with topical events while avoiding the easy (which is to say the tendentious) way out. “Have the courage to be complicated,” Alexander, the part-time community worker, advises the kids in his care, and Wertenbaker deserves full credit for practicing what her play so passionately preaches.