Why do they hate us? Brit scribe David Greig tackles that conundrum with a literate tongue and an open mind in “The American Pilot,” which lands solidly at MTC after its premiere production by the Royal Shakespeare Company last season in Blighty.
Greig sets his riveting drama in a nameless country “mired in civil war and conflict for many years,” imagining the impact on inhabitants of a rural village when an American pilot crash-lands in their remote mountain valley. Unable to communicate with their prisoner, the villagers project all their fears and fantasies about America onto the soldier, whose state of oblivion about the people whose land he has invaded proves as tragic as his own government’s willful ignorance.
Helmer (and MTC a.d.) Lynne Meadow keeps the events of the play a dreamy distance from reality by treating the intimate playing space like the raw canvas for a painting. Given the rough textures of the farmyard setting (by Derek McLane), the generic Middle Eastern cut of the costumes (by Ilona Somogyi) and the golden tones of the lighting (by Christopher Akerlind), we could be in any mountainous region of, say, Afghanistan or Turkey.
The placement of the wounded soldier center stage, on a stable pallet bathed in a radiant overhead light, telegraphs directorial intent to make him an aesthetic symbol with overtly political and quasi-religious overtones.
Aaron Staton plays the blond, blue-eyed soldier boy for real — silently wincing from the pain of a broken leg, containing his terror with a bit of bluster, clutching his MP3 player with its 4,000 precious songs by the likes of Schooly D and Snoop Dogg. But with that halo of light around his head, he could be some mythic hero or tormented saint as portrayed by an Italian Renaissance master.
“The American pilot was the most beautiful human being I had ever seen,” marvels the sheep farmer who found him and is sheltering him in his stable. To this gentle soul, sweetly played by Ron Domingo, the young man represents the essence of beauty missing from his own life. In his wondering eyes, the visitor may have come from some ethereal plane of existence, but he is at least human — a situation that changes abruptly once the rest of the village gets wind of his presence.
Even in his vulnerable state, the pilot is a huge headache for the villagers, who are in the midst of a bruising civil war between a cruel central government and a crazed resistance force. The farmer’s wife (a no-nonsense perf from Rita Wolf) feeds him and sets his broken leg, but she is quick to realize the danger in harboring a foreign soldier. So is the village councilor, a manipulative trader (in Yusef Bulos’ unflinching perf) motivated solely by promises of profit.
Once the captain of the local resistance movement (a forceful turn from Waleed F. Zuaiter) arrives on the scene brandishing a Kalashnikov, the political dynamic becomes more defined, if not clarified. The Americans, it turns out, have a history in this region through a previous involvement in the country’s civil war. Their presence is still felt via the military government they financed and the ordinance they provided the army.
Looking at the wounded soldier, the resistance fighter sees little more than a spark of life. “But that tiny quantity of life is easily the most powerful force within a hundred miles,” he notes. “He’s our captive, but we’re diminished by him.”
The option of killing the pilot instead of trading him for political gain becomes more pressing whenever the captain’s translator is on the scene. A frightening young man in Geoffrey Arend’s quietly fierce perf, the translator is the most dangerous character in the play because he has been to America and come back with conflicted feelings of love and hate for all it represents to him.
“When I saw the American pilot I found, to my surprise, that I wanted to hurt him,” he says, contemplating the cycle of misery the American presence has brought to his country.
Only Evie, the farmer’s teenaged daughter, feels no conflict at all when she looks at the pilot. At once unguarded and innocent in Anjali Bhimani’s ardent perf, she alone sees in him the promise of hope and freedom that America wishes, and so often fails, to project to the world.
Greig overreaches here by turning Evie into a heavily symbolic Joan of Arc figure, burdening the character and straining the plot of his otherwise beautifully written play. But before he gets carried away, scribe delivers an intelligent and moving argument about the disastrous results when nations large and small look upon one another in such utter ignorance that they fail to see their common humanity.