Playwright: Elaine Romero. At: Chicago Dramatists Tutterow Theatre, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets: 312-633-0630; $33. Runs through: July 19
A Work of Art is second in Elaine Romero's trilogy of poetic dramas about the United States at war. The 16th Street Theatre presented the first play, Graveyard of Empires, last April. There's little in either play about combat, few references to geopolitics and almost no representation of the United States as a nation. Romero's concern in both plays is the toll war takes on American service personnel and their families: the personal trauma and emotional collateral damage that destroys lives, marriages and families here at home.
Graveyard of Empires is set against Afghan War drone operations. It portrays the fallout to several servicemen ( and their families ), from the low-ranking soldier who operates drones via computer from Nevada, to the military and scientific brass who created the drone program. A Work of Art is set in 1978 ( with flashbacks ) and is narrower in focus. It examines Sabrina ( Jennifer Coombs ), emotionally stunted and perpetually angry since the day in 1968 when her brother, Kirk ( Vic Kuligoski ), was blown to bits in Vietnam. Sabrina lacks closure to such a degree that she's never opened her brother's last letter ( although you know she will before the play ends ), and has rejected her best friend who was engaged to Kirk.
Romero's style in both plays is non-linear and sometimes non-realistic with jumps in time and locale that were confusing in Graveyard of Empires but clearly understood in A Work of Art with its fewer characters and places. Both plays arbitrarily introduce Latino/Latina characters, presumably reflecting Romero's personal experiences, although ethnicity is not essential to either work.
What struck me most is that Sabrina's inconsolable sense of loss and mal-adjustment would be the same if her brother had suddenly died in a plane crash or been murdered in a conventional way ( although I suppose war also is conventional, alas ). This play is about someone you love dearly being ripped from you, and the "how" of that ripping doesn't really matter.
A Work of Art is a language piece composed largely of two-character scenes, and much of it is inert despite the efforts of director Henry Godinez to give it movement and the passion of the performers, especially Coombs. The words frequently are beautiful, poignant or pointed as Sabrina struggles to answer her own question, "How do you love another human being when you are bereft of soul?" Along the way, she rejects efforts to penetrate her emotional armor by her mother ( Charin Alvarez ), her best friend ( Stephanie Soohyun Park ) and a potential boyfriend ( Mario Moreno ). Sabrina's plight moved me, but eventually I stopped caring because of her obsessive, repetitive behavior. That's the play's chief problem/obstacle. Shorter might be better, eliminating the intermission and deleting repetitive beats.