Honey Brown Eyes
nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
January 14, 2011
The Working Theater’s honorable mission is to produce plays for and about working people. They've aptly chosen Honey Brown Eyes, the winner of the 2009 Helen Hayes Award (premiered at Theatre J in Washington DC), Stefanie Zadravec’s truly deserving play about the war in Bosnia in the early '90s.
Following the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Soviet-style totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, former Yugoslavia began to be shattered by ethnic conflicts. Men who grew up together—former playmates, colleagues, best buddies—turned against each other, Christian Serbs (Chetniks) and Muslim Bosnians (Bosniaks) fighting to throw the others out of the cities where they had been living in peace together for decades.
The first act of Honey Brown Eyes takes place in Visegrad, a town near the Serbian border, its population in 1991 including 31.8% Serbs and 63.5% Bosniaks. The play captures a tragic disruption in Visegrad’s quiet life, when Serb paramilitary soldiers kill Muslim men and burn their houses, gang rape their wives and daughters, and commit all sorts of unimaginable atrocities.
Zadravec zooms in on that world gone berserk by intertwining two dramatic stories that happen in two kitchens. Her focus is on relationships, on exploring the ways in which people manage (or not) to preserve their humanity when chaos and hell prevail. She brings the kitchen-and-sink genre to a new level of intensity and power. Her characters cling obsessively to the little details of everyday life—coffee, sugar, onions, TV, radio, music—struggling to preserve the illusion of normalcy. As Jovanka (played by the wonderful Kate Skinner) says at some point, “War teaches you the value of an onion.” The violence surrounding these folks is kept mostly outside the door of the apartment, pushed away or postponed by small acts of kindness and human connection.
Honey Brown Eyes is written in an American vernacular and it makes lots of sense as the Balkan characters are influenced by Western pop culture, which is, paradoxically, their common ground. Dragan (a vibrant Edoardo Ballerini), the Serb militiaman, and Denis (Daniel Serafini-Sauli), the Muslim resistance fighter, were members of a hot rock & roll band before the war. At that time their disagreements were artistic differences around a Serbian gusle Denis demanded to play folk songs with, while Dragan was pro “New Wave.” Alma (Sue Cremin), the worn-out beauty Dragan was once crazy about, buys batteries instead of food so she and her daughter Zlata (Beatrice Miller) can escape into the world of American sitcoms.
Despite the gritty reality of a war zone, Zadravec’s play is tender, with a touch of humor, sometimes gallows humor. The music and laughter on the TV are constantly reminding us of the gap between the situation in Bosnia and the entertainment/fun “waving” from the other side of the ocean, a sort of “life is elsewhere” refrain a la Milan Kundera.
Honey Brown Eyes is a meaningful production, sharply directed by Erica Schmidt, worth seeing and thinking about after we leave the theatre, as flashes of global awareness and gratitude for what we generally take for granted warm our hearts.