It’s awfully tough to write with any perspective about a national trauma while we’re in the midst of it — that’s the stiff challenge facing artists who take on the Iraq war and its impact on the nation. But Craig Wright (“Recent Tragic Events,” “Six Feet Under”) manages to pull this off with surprising potency and depth in “Lady,” a lucid one-act about old buddies split apart by their diverging political points of view. In this sorrowful work, filled with anger and confusion, what’s broken in the friendship — and, by blunt metaphorical extension, America — can’t be easily tidied up.
Commissioned by Northlight Theater in suburban Chicago, where it’s receiving its world premiere, the play takes place during a hunting excursion in rural Illinois, a ritual outing for the three 40-ish guys who’ve been best friends forever.
Lately, tensions have begun to fray the civility between Dyson (Paul Sparks), a history teacher who considers Iraq “the most spurious war that has ever been,” and Graham (Lance Stuart Baker), a Democratic congressman who has been tilting heavily to the right and continues to be a full-throated supporter of the war and America’s role as messianic purveyor of democracy. (Wright should be thankful for Sen. Joe Lieberman; without him there wouldn’t be a Democrat in Washington left to match this description.)
Caught in the middle is the easygoing, can’t-we-all-get-along Kenny (Michael Shannon), who, before Graham shows up late, pleads with Dyson in the first of two scenes to leave politics aside for the day. But the political, of course, has become extremely personal: Dyson’s 18-year-old son has been inspired by Graham’s beliefs and may well be on his way to enlist in the Marines. Graham has refused to try to dissuade him, so Dyson insists he will persuade his friend to do so, with violence not completely off the table as an option.
The second scene begins with gunshots, and we discover that the now-arrived Graham has accidentally shot Kenny’s spaniel Lady. (The play was drafted prior to Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting fiasco.)
For the rest of the play, the dog remains an unseen presence, lying behind a mound on set designer Jack Magaw’s realistic depiction of a hunting ground. Lady also is a multitiered metaphor for innocence lost and irreversible mistakes (a certain current war, anyone?), which are too painful to look at but too prominent to ignore.
Among other themes, issues of responsibility run through “Lady,” as Kenny blames himself for putting his faithful dog in harm’s way, and Dyson must confront his own role in his son’s desire to depart from his father’s direction.
Both Kenny and Dyson come off as fully dimensional characters, men entering middle age and learning hard lessons about life. The sympathetic, politically ambivalent Kenny is the kind of guy who has never grown up. He wishes everything could always be the same between friends, but his life also seems infused with such loss that he has retreated into movies and marijuana.
Dyson’s exasperation over the war, the disappointment he feels in Graham and the fear he has for his son’s future all make him the central figure, but Wright and director BJ Jones carefully restrict our ability to empathize with him completely. In Spark’s passionate performance, Dyson is sharp, witty, flawed and infuriatingly insensitive.
Unfortunately, the plasticized Graham just isn’t a fully realized character, and that’s the most limiting factor with “Lady.” Baker gives a convincing turn as the Midwesterner whose sense of self has fundamentally altered in D.C. But Wright has not invested Graham with enough of a personal journey or persuasive argument to seem more than a foil for Dyson’s issues.
Still, “Lady” delivers sufficient complex undercurrents to keep it from being too much of a one-sided tirade. Amidst its righteous anger lurk far deeper pangs — both political and existential — of helplessness and regret.