Area of Rescue
nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
June 9, 2007
Everything comes full circle. The idea is as old as human thought, appearing in all kinds of literature and mythology. It is particularly prevalent in science-fiction, the genre to which Area of Rescue, the new play by Laura Eason belongs. The play posits a bleak future, in which some sort of catastrophes (perhaps man-made, perhaps environmental, perhaps a combination; it's never clear) have rendered much of the world's population refugees. Mysterious storms swirl across the globe, and no one goes outside without wearing a protective hood. Concerns about attack are constantly present, although never addressed.
The play takes place in the home of an unconventional family group that has just suffered a loss. Gordon has lost his pregnant wife Lily in a ferry-boat accident, and on this day the family is trying their best to mourn while at the same time respecting the birthday of his daughter Hedy. Living with Gordon are Ruth and her daughter Mia. Gordon apparently "stepped in" when Ruth's husband died. Hedy is, of course, distraught, and resists celebrating as too-helpful nosy neighbor Mrs. Henri arrives bearing gifts. She runs outside to play, where she encounters Ivo a young man in the midst of his compulsory "service time," who ostensibly comes to pay his respects and bring gifts but actually has an official motive for being here as well.
It seems the death of Lily was likely not the accident it's been presented as. The mystery of how that death actually occurred, and why the couple were on the ferry in the first place, is what drives the rest of the story forward. There are truths within truths here: what Gordon has worked out with Ruth to say may not be the truth; Ivo, in a relationship with Mia, is willing to report what he believes Mia wants him to say, but this may not reflect her true feelings.
Closest of all to Lily may have been the family's servant Alleah, a refugee who has been enrolled in a period of indentured servitude in order to earn her citizenship. Alleah belongs to a different faith from the rest, as is indicated by the color of her identification card. There is a sinister undercurrent to this, despite Ivo's protestations about the innocence of the practice when Hedy questions him. ("We just like to keep track.", he says, "Faith respects faith.") Alleah clearly had discussions about the idea of the afterlife with Lily, a fact that obviously alarms everyone. It comes out that Lily and Gordon's baby was dead before her accident, and that they may have been going to see a mysterious doctor of questionable ethics. But how honest has Gordon been about what happened, and how much does his family believe him?
There's lots going on in this play, and the moral climate represented here reminded me of a play set in the Red Scare of the 1950s, moralistic and insular, with a constant fear of disaster and a condescending welcome to other groups. Eason, it seems to me, intends the play to be a warning. When Gordon protests that things didn't used to be this way, the answer he gets refers to the idea of the pendulum of history: "It did. And then it didn't. And now it is again."
Unfortunately, the play contains too much exposition, and not enough focus on what makes the society portrayed here similar to and different from ours. Director Jessica Davis-Irons could help matters by picking up the production's slow pace, which prevents tension from building throughout the investigation. The cast is extremely diverse and of varying levels of experience; Jackie Chung's intelligent, pragmatic Mia and Arthur Aulisi's pained Gordon are the standouts.
The main reason to see Area of Rescue is Neal Wilkinson's spectacular set. Multi-leveled and possessed of multiple functioning video-screens, it seems to have emerged directly from a science-fiction movie. Unfortunately, some aspects of it, particularly the video, are so interesting that they drew focus away from the action on stage.
Eason's characters live in fear and longing for a world they fear will never return. Their yard has been stripped to be turned into an "area of rescue" in case of attack. Hedy mourns the birds who will never return now that the trees have been cut down. These ideas have great resonance to our own time; I just found them more interesting than the domestic mystery the play revolves around.