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THEATER REVIEW Damascus
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-05-30

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Playwright: Bennett Fisher

At: Strawdog Theatre Company, 1802 W. Berenice Ave. Tickets: $35-$40; Strawdog.org; 773-644-1380. Runs through: June 23

Crime writers claim that inexperienced killers are easy to catch because they only plan up to the moment of the murder, neglecting such post-op measures as escape routes or disposal of evidence, so that even if suicide wasn't part of the original mission, confusion during the aftermath often drives them to view self-destruction as the only way out of the emotional turmoil.

This principle is what locates us, five minutes into our play, inside an airport shuttle van making its way from Minneapolis to Chicago. It is occupied by two men—one, a terrorist bomber fleeing the scene of his recent crime, and the second, the owner of the vehicle, who is unaware of the reason for his passenger's urgent return to his home in Northern California. Oh, and by the way, one of the men is the darker-skinned son of Somali immigrants and the other is white and a descendant of Depression-era migrants. If they should be detained, whose version of the facts are the police likely to believe?

The dramatic question, then, is not merely how far each is prepared to go to forestall losing everything he has in this world and the next, but who is willing to sacrifice others in service of his goal. A six-hour road trip could have provided the premise for a bunker-drama workshop exercise proposing contrasting archetypes swapping lofty polemics, but Bennett Fisher isn't interested in op-ed symposiums—both his characters are beyond persuasion, anyway—so much as stripping down his argument to the stark outlines of a locked-room two-handed mind-game thriller.

Atmosphere is everything in this genre ( aptly named "Night Journey" in literary parlance ), but never has the isolation of lonely highways and the intimacy generated thereby been so vividly evoked as in Strawdog Theatre's bare-bones room where the purr of the real-life El train outside its walls blends with the artificial traffic noises supplied by Sarah Espinoza's sound design. Terence Sims and Sam Hubbard likewise reject simplistic subtexts to deliver caricature-free performances, along with Eleni Pappageorge as assorted bystanders, but the true star of the show is Jeffrey Kmiec's sleek GMC Chevrolet Savana—a surprisingly lightweight sculpture of aluminum tubing, fully functional engine parts and the smoothest-rolling platform wheels in the history of shifting scenery.


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