When plans were shelved to stage “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” as part of New York Theater Workshop’s spring season, the resulting uproar and alarmist cries of censorship inevitably fanned expectations for the production, a critical success in London. Now that the solo play about the American activist killed in 2003 by an Israeli Army bulldozer while demonstrating for Palestinian rights has arrived Off Broadway, both its strengths and limitations are apparent. As a portrait of a young idealist finding a focus for the fire in her belly, it’s intermittently powerful; as political theater, it’s stirring but also naively simplistic in its account of a complex ongoing conflict.
Developed by Alan Rickman (who also directed) and Guardian features editor Katharine Viner from Corrie’s college writings, diary entries and emails, the play avoids becoming propaganda. But in attempting to distill drama from the tragedy of Corrie’s senseless death at 23, the work is handicapped by a voice that even at its most impassioned, was not fully formed. By her own admission, Corrie was “scattered,” and it’s that quality that intrudes on the piece’s searing emotionality.
Even as a 12-year-old, Corrie had the beginnings of a political conscience. “Everyone must feel safe,” she wrote. “Safe to be themselves, physically safe to say what they think, just safe. That’s the best rule I can think of.” The play is effective in showing how a girl from Olympia, Wash. — with its oat-bran muffins, cedar-scented woods and post-hippie liberalism — reacted against the tranquility of her environment, rejecting the guilt of complacency, privilege and safety by recklessly venturing to feel the world’s injustices first-hand.
But, much as it serves to lay contrasting foundations for her relative maturity and galvanization after she travels to Gaza, the opening section, with Corrie (Megan Dodds) in her bedroom in Olympia, creates a distance from the subject. It’s like being forced to digest a full semester’s output of a creative writing freshman determined to put a poetic gloss on the familiar college-age sentiments of restless, random militancy.
Indulging in mannered performance-piece touches, Rickman’s direction initially feeds this preciousness, setting off warning signals that this will be a very actor-y experience. But the shift in the action to the Middle East when Corrie travels there with the Intl. Solidarity Movement brings with it a bracing shift into more arresting theatricality. In Hildegard Bechtler’s customarily stark set design, the bright bedroom wall slides away to reveal the ravaged concrete shell of a Gaza Strip building as Emma Laxton’s dense soundscape and Johanna Town’s supple lighting evoke an unsettling world of danger.
The writing, too, becomes more cogent. In Dodds’ nuanced performance, we essentially see a girl grow up before our eyes. Corrie’s first impressions are typical of the outside observer in any armed-conflict situation — focusing on children with holes blown through their bedroom walls or families struggling to stay together and maintain their dignity and humanity in the face of death.
As Corrie’s experience deepens and she gains more knowledge, the play acquires some much-needed specificity. The information is sobering, detailing the systematic erasure of Palestinian livelihoods — the destruction of water supplies or greenhouses in a farming community; places of employment and education rendered inaccessible by checkpoints that transform a 40-minute journey into as much as 12 hours; 60,000 jobs in Israel for people from the city of Rafah reduced to 600 in just two years.
Most effective passage is a final, unbroken monologue, an email from Corrie to her mother delivered with a harrowing mix of tears and anger and painful questioning by Dodds as she sits beneath the unnatural glow of a fluorescent tube. But moving as this is, it also conveys that even at her most informed, Corrie was driven more by sensitivity toward the central imbalance — she condenses it at one point to “50-year-old Russian guns and homemade explosives” against “one of the world’s largest militaries, backed by the world’s only superpower” — than by a thorough understanding of the issues.
This is theater, not journalism, but in a play that makes a heroic martyr out of a single death — one of thousands since the first intifada — greater perspective is necessary. The brief lip service paid to the history of Jewish oppression and to the distinctions between Israeli policy and Jewish policy don’t seem enough.
All of this makes the play more insightful as personal than political drama. It’s hard to imagine anyone being untouched by this story of a girl full of hope and ideals being sucked into a world of horrors. But Rickman and Viner’s elegant cut-and-paste job gives us only Corrie’s voice when others are needed. It’s telling that the most heartbreaking part of the piece is not Corrie’s writing but an email from her father, expressing his pride and fear, and wishing he could stick his daughter’s head in the sand.
It’s worth noting that the production began unassumingly in the tiny upstairs studio at London’s Royal Court and without the New York Theater Workshop fuss, might have crossed the Atlantic unencumbered by the weight of attendant controversy. The fragile, often penetrating play has been done a disservice by the noise that surrounds it.