Writing political drama is a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, a novice scribe with beaucoup prizes and commissions already notched on her belt, takes up that challenge with “Lidless.” After opening with a brutal scene of psychological torture in a Guantanamo Bay military prison, play fast-forwards to a future time when the female tormentor and her male victim meet again. Message about the lasting effects of torture comes through loud and clear; but possibly because of its presentational production style, the play is more intellectually jolting than emotionally moving.
Directorial approach taken by helmer Tea Alagic is disorienting by design, picking up on the play’s split time frame and fragmentary nature. Blocky set pieces (by Scott Bradley), painted white and spaced at uneven intervals, allow the action of one scene to bleed out into the next. The jumpy cues of Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design, which alternately flood and black out scenes without defining them, are another head trip.
The shifting focus is actually a blessing, given the brutality of events at Gitmo, where a gung ho American soldier named Alice (played with harrowing enthusiasm and leather lungs by Danielle Skraastad) is systematically breaking down a detainee.
Having inflicted enough physical pain on a Pakistani prisoner named Bashir (a riveting perf from Laith Nakli) to cause her friend and fellow soldier Riva (Maha Chehlaoui, a welcome breath of humanity) to call her on it, Alice switches to a new Washington-approved strategy called “Invasion of Space by a Female.” After gulping down enough pills to desensitize herself to what she’s doing, Alice surrenders herself to the erotic experience of sadistically driving this devout Muslim man mad with desire.
Fifteen years down the road, at home in Minnesota, Alice is celebrating her 40th birthday with her spineless husband Lucas (Thom Rivera, making the best of it), her frighteningly smart and sensitive 14-year-old daughter, Rhiannon (a remarkable perf from Emma Galvin), and her still-best-friend Riva, a medic in the military and now a surgeon.
Although Rhiannon keeps pestering her mother to talk about her military experience, Alice firmly resists — until the day that Bashir walks into her flower shop and confronts her with her past.
His first demand — “Remember me” — only confuses Alice, who has blocked out all memories of the savage person she once was. His next demand will awaken those memories and shatter her world.
The prismatic design of Alagic’s direction projects layer upon layer of mystery to disguise what is essentially a melodramatic plot. And while the surreal production style doesn’t get in the way of the moral issues raised in the play, it does discourage even the most intellectually involved audience from having an emotional reaction to them.