America’s involvement in Iraq has been painted in a harshly negative light by David Hares’ “Stuff Happens,” Tim Robbins’ “Embedded” and Simon Levy’s “What I Heard About Iraq,” and the U.S. doesn’t fare any better in Heather Raffo’s one-woman drama spotlighting nine women fighting to cope with their agonizing Iraqi legacy. The difference here is that Saddam Hussein draws more emphasis than President Bush, and the Iraqi point of view offers insights not emphasized by American newspapers and TV.
Raffo, daughter of an American mother and Iraqi father, spent 10 years interviewing Iraqi women from various strata of society, and the result is noteworthy as a historical document. The production, however, is overlong and would have broader appeal if events were clarified.
Antje Ellermann’s set — with its boarded-up windows, chunks of cracked concrete, stacked sandbags and overall projection of destruction — creates an air of hopelessness, along with Obadiah Eaves’ rumbling sound effects and appropriately melancholy music. Raffo’s first character, Mulaya, a woman hired to lead call and response with women mourning at funerals, emerges as a poignant, pitiable figure.
Another protagonist, Layal, the show’s most fascinating personality, admits, “I fear it here and I love it here,” and defines herself this way: “I’m a good artist, I’m an OK mother, I’m a miserable wife.” She’s also a curator of the Saddam Art Center, a favorite of Saddam’s regime and sexual victim of Saddam’s sons, who think nothing of pouring honey over a discarded mistress and feeding her to Dobermans.
Hooda, a heavy smoker and whiskey drinker living in London, reveals that Saddam beheaded 70 women for being prostitutes, and a monstrous portrait of him begins to build. Stories about Saddam, and the graphic horrors he inflicted on the people, are more absorbing than many of the script’s personal romantic anecdotes.
Ghastly details are voiced by a doctor who discusses genetic damage that has resulted in babies born with two heads or none at all. “Maybe it’s depleted uranium,” she speculates, “maybe it’s the chemicals that were released when we were bombed during the Gulf War, but something happened to the environment.” Raffo is strikingly effective in this role.
Another tale, from Umm Gheda (“a woman of great stillness and pride”), empathetically directed by Joanna Settle, describes an American bombing of an Amiriya bomb shelter on Feb. 13, 1991. The huge room became an oven, bombs burst the pipes and boiled the people, and over 400 were killed.
The play’s theme is most eloquently dramatized by Hooda, when she explains that Saddam “should have been gone during the first Gulf War.” His own troops were defecting, and the population expected America to help after their rebellion, but the U.S. turned its back, allowing the dictator to execute his own people.
Differentiation among nine characters — which include a 38- year-old Bedouin woman, an American and an Iraqi girl who loves ‘N Sync — isn’t as clear as it could be, and Raffo’s unrelentingly impassioned portrayal can grow exhausting. Some modulation and subtlety would give the audience room to respond more fully.