In the 5½ years since the conflict began, many playwrights have weighed in on the Iraq war from military, political and ideological perspectives, but relatively few have focused on the home front. Steven Levenson explores the emotional minefield of those left behind with sensitivity in his stylistically ambitious but uneven debut, “The Language of Trees.” The play attempts to blend domestic drama, low-key comedy and political commentary with a more poetic strain of magic realism, but the production struggles to find a cohesive voice. However, its poignant reflections on incomprehensible loss gradually creep up on you.
Like last year’s disarming inaugural offering, “Speech and Debate,” this second entry in the Roundabout Underground series devoted to emerging artists comes from a recent Brown U. grad.
At 24, Levenson displays a refreshing willingness to experiment with language and tone, and to juggle naturalistic representation with metaphor. But unlike, say, Craig Lucas or Sarah Ruhl, who have more successfully woven dreamlike dimensions into their ruminations on love and death, Levenson doesn’t yet have the command to harness those elements in ways entirely organic to the narrative. And Alex Timbers’ quirky direction doesn’t do enough to smooth over the inconsistencies.
The playwright’s bid to transcend realism is more effectively echoed in designer Cameron Anderson’s set, which cleverly reconfigures the utilitarian Black Box Theater space into a faux-thrust stage housing a classic American kitchen, flanked by two abstract areas emblazoned with tree imagery.
In the first of 21 short scenes, Levenson establishes the frazzled warmth of the central relationship as translator Denton (Michael Hayden) prepares to ship out to Iraq in 2003 while his wife, Loretta (Natalie Gold), botches his final breakfast at home. He’s calm and reassuring, she’s anxious and edgy, but clearly they love each other.
Played with endearing, wide-eyed excitement and childlike candor by adult actor Gio Perez, their 7-year-old son, Eben, is introduced during show-and-tell at school. The scene deftly conveys the precocious nerd’s fascination with history, nature and arcane trivia.
Jarring the uneasy limbo of mother and son in gnawing isolation while Denton is away in a danger zone, well-meaning neighbor Kay (Maggie Burke) comes by with a care package. A complete stranger despite having lived next door for five years, Kay is a meddling do-gooder who soon starts helping dazed-and-defensive Loretta with cooking, cleaning and caring for Eben.
While there’s considerable charm in Perez’s eye-rolling impatience as he explains environmental concerns or a translator’s job to Kay, Timbers pushes too hard for cute comedy in these scenes, allowing Burke to veer into sitcommy Gladys Kravitz mode. The choice undercuts the emotional stakes and makes it harder to accept chipper Kay’s character transition later on, when her own sorrows come to light.
In his spoken letters from the front, Hayden movingly shows the sudden transformation of an easygoing, playful man into a pensive and increasingly traumatized one. Given how firmly Denton and his wife make the distinction between translator and soldier, it’s sobering when he informs Loretta, “I have a helmet now. And a gun. Temporarily. Just until things calm down.”
Kay clucks with unquestioning optimism about Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, but a darker turn of events has been foreshadowed from the start. When they learn Denton has been captured and is being held hostage, Loretta becomes increasingly unable to cope while Eben clings to his father’s fanciful promise that he would one day translate the language of trees.
There are touching moments in which Loretta steps out of her world into Denton’s hallucinations, but Levenson’s writing becomes less than seamless when he springs a fantasy visit from Bill Clinton (Michael Warner) on the prisoner. The play doesn’t need to address politics or the failure of leadership so literally. It comes through loud and clear that these are compassionate, thinking people caught up in a muddled conflict for the wrong reasons.
Despite having few actual scenes together, Hayden, Perez and Gold are linked by a tender connecting thread, and Burke illustrates that even the most awkward friendships can have value in times of fear and sadness. Gold is especially strong as the bruised figure at the center of it all, helplessly wondering how to react or even what to feel.
The playwright aims to make a point about truth communicated through nonverbal channels, and while this is not satisfyingly articulated, the play’s depth of feeling is affecting. Levenson’s writing has room for more maturity and definition, but there’s no doubt he has something to say and is searching for an original way to say it. That makes him a good fit with the goals of Roundabout Underground.