Playwright: J. T. Rogers. At: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Tickets: 1-773-281-8463; www.timelinetheatre.com; $32-$42. Runs through: July 28
"My enemy's enemy is my friend," is a cliché of global geopolitics, and perhaps it's never proved more accurate than in the quicksand morass of the Islamic world. The monumental schism of that world, Shi'a vs. Sunni, began with the death of The Prophet in 632, exacerbated much later by European colonial powers creating artificial nations across Islamic and ethnic lines. For more than 30 years now we've paid the piper for one such artificial nation, Afghanistan.
Blood and Gifts addresses recent Afghan history with a substantial shout-out to Pakistan as well, as seen via CIA operative James Warnock (played with greatly effective passionate sadness by Timothy Edward Kane). The nearly indecipherable regional politics are portrayed 1981-1991, when the Soviet Union had its Vietnam in Afghanistan, with the United States and Britain covertly supporting nationalist opposition through Pakistan and various tribal warlords. To hasten the Soviet defeat, we armed and trained the religious fighters known as Mujahedeen, some of whom became the Taliban.
Author J.T. Rogersbest-known for Madagascar, a deeply meditative three-character playthis time around paints an enormous canvas requiring a cast of 15, locations on three continents and smatterings of Russian, Farsi and Pashtun in addition to English. Combining cultural journey with political lesson, the message of Blood and Gifts is for all of us right now, even though the setting is the near-past. Western policies must fail, Rogers implies, as long as family and traditional Islamic blood vengeance out-trump political loyalties or concepts of nationhood. Rogers humanizes this story through four principal characters: the U.S., British and Soviet agents in Pakistan and an Afghan warlord, united through discussions of children and family obligations. It's an effective technique although it cannot totally disguise Blood and Gifts as a tract play.
This is one of TimeLine's largest and most complex shows, and it's terribly important as well. Masterful veteran director Nick Bowling does not disappoint, handling with equal skill the complex physical logistics of the alley staging (audience on two sides, facing across the stage) and the high emotions of the characters. This is gangbusters theater with one of the finest casts currently onstage: Kane (Warnock), Raymond Fox (Brit agent Simon Craig), Terry Hamilton (cagey, avuncular Soviet Dmitri Gromov), Kareem Bandealy (passionate warlord Abdullah Khan), with Anish Jethmalani, Behzad Dabu, Craig Spidle and David Parkes shining in crucial supporting roles.
The design team is stellar as well, especially Collette Pollard's massive environmental lobby and set, literally the unfinished walls of a disaster under construction, which is an apt description of the history still unfolding around us. Do see this show. Come early (or stay afterwards) to absorb the copious information in the lobby, and then weep for the world.