A drama of ideas is rare enough, let alone one equally in touch with its characters and with a tricky plot and twist ending. Bob Clyman’s “Tranced,” a psychological mystery in the shadow of the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, fits all those definitions. Anyone despairing of American playwrights’ indifference to contemporary realities will find stimulating tonic in a trip to the Laguna Playhouse for the world premiere of this ambitious and thematically rich work.
Though Clyman has evidently researched genocide exhaustively, “Tranced” isn’t one of those sermons in which you feel the author’s index cards dropping as the play plods along. Instead Clyman — a psychologist himself — creates characters in real need, then peels away their defenses to uncover the important geopolitical issues at the heart of their dilemma.
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Therapy is the opening gambit, as D.C.-area shrink Philip Malaad (Thomas Fiscella) applies his celebrated technique of “trancing” — a specialized form of hypnotherapy designed to elicit painful memories — to treat Azmera (Erica Tazel), an African graduate student foundering in distraction and panic attacks.
Her distress, it becomes clear, relates to an incident she witnessed near the site of a proposed dam in her (fictional) home country of Guyamba. Her conscious memories match the press reports of the time, but Malaad’s trances yield a chillingly different story with profound implications for Guyamba’s despotic leader and hapless citizens — that is, if the report is true, and if Malaad is willing to risk his patient’s survival in bringing it to light.
Ambitious reporter Beth (Ashley West Leonard) is in a lather to bring it to light after hearing Azmera’s taped interviews (staged live for us as we see Beth reacting to them). Properly, however, she balks at rocking the world’s foundation with only one uncorroborated source, and revelations about Malaad’s own mysterious background only complicate matters further.
It’s not easy to overlay multiple locations and time frames without confusing the audience beyond redemption. Helmer Jessica Kubzansky expertly marshals subtle sound effects and carefully defined areas of light to clarify the plot and draw us into Clyman’s web.
On designer Narelle Sissons’ stunning solid-white grid resembling graph paper, Kubzansky sends the characters gliding at right angles as if down corridors of the mind or halls of power. When someone moves on a diagonal, watch out: It’s the same diagonal signal of disruption lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick bleeds onto the scrim to adjust the mood whenever truth is being told.
Cast pulls off Clyman’s difficult monologues with lucidity and intelligence, Leonard driving the action through sheer guts (though more variety would help) and Fiscella serving as the moral center, gradually revealing the fractured soul beneath a professional veneer.
Tazel is initially hampered by an arch, off-putting Brit accent; allowing her to retain African cadences would have protected Azmera’s exotic quality without turning her into a demented Katharine Hepburn. Still, she becomes real and affecting by the end, as does Andrew Borba as Logan, a government functionary tiresomely (and irrelevantly) presented as a sexist, horny boor until he, too, is drawn into the situation to make a moral choice.
Play’s weaknesses — themes not fully explored; loose ends not tied up; the lazy treatment of the Logan character — are easily overlooked given the excitement it elicits out of cerebral subject matter. If the politics of genocide isn’t a sure attention grabber, even less so is the psychology behind that politics. Yet the food for thought Clyman offers, about each society’s responsibility for the horrors in others, fuels his human drama without ever becoming didactic.
In the end, play’s main concern is the elusively shifting dynamic between controller and controlled. Malaad’s explanation that “when somebody takes control of your options, you fall into a trance” is exactly what each character does to the others at one point or another, though how, when and why aren’t clear until the end. The unmistakable analogy to the ways in which the media manipulate their audience, or the First World manipulates the Third, deepens the fascination.
Clyman’s complex melding of political and personal concerns becomes more than a little hypnotic itself, as moment to moment we struggle to decide exactly who is trancing whom.