Playwright: Kathleen Cahill
At: 16th Street Theatre, 6420 16th St., Berwyn. Tickets: $18-$22; 16thStreetTheater.org . Runs Through: Feb. 17
Kathleen Cahill's Harbur Gate contains the kernels of something compelling and important. The piece explores the interlocking stories of five veterans, four of whom were part of a tank convoy that encountered a deadly explosion en route from the U.S. base Khabur Gate to the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Directed by Ann Filmer, the 16th Street production is stymied by structural flaws. It's divided into three parts, each segment giving audiences a glimpse into the lives of the veterans. But within each of those partsespecially the secondthere are prolonged periods of stasis. This would work if the dialogue was crackling throughout, but there's a droning quality to some of it. So when the audience is asked to spend almost an entire scene watching two Marines drive a tank, the impact of the show is dulled. There are also several small but nonetheless irksome moments in the third segment that defy credibility.
The piece begins in an apartment as Carey ( Arti Ishak ) and Alyson ( Stephanie Shum ) reminisce about Iraq and flirt their way toward a romantic sexual encounter. Carey is trying to process the trauma from being hit by an IED ( improvised explosive device ) while part of the Mosul convoy. Alyson is supportive and lovingit's clear that the couple's partnership is strong. But it also isn't exactly what it seems, which is revealed after the arrival of Carey's roommate Chad ( Laurence Stepney ). Chad was also in the convoy.
Like Alyson, Chad isn't precisely who you may think he is. But where Alyson's revelation is sobering and sad, Chad's is joyfully defiant. As the two prepare for an evening out, that joy shines through even though both are still clearly traumatized by their experience. The scene also does most of the heavy lifting as far as exposition goes. As Chad and Carey and Alyson relive the explosion, they also explain all the details the audience needs to know for the rest of the play to make sense. Some of the dialogue is a bit contrived, but it gets the job done.
The second part of the drama puts audience in the tank convoy with Alyson and Russo ( Felipe Carrasco ). While Russo blusters and behaves as if he were playing a shoot-'em-up computer game, Alyson is circumspect and terse.
Cahill tries to show the intense peril the two face by repeated use of stylized motion and dialogue that almost sounds like overlapping Haiku poems. Neither device is particularly effective in furthering the plot or ramping up the dramatic tension. The repetition of words and movements ( Alyson and Russo remove their helmets in underwater-like slo-mo at least three times ) doesn't help matters.
The final piece unfolds back in the United States. Michelle ( Debbie Banos ) has just come from a car accident encounters John ( Jay Worthington ), a blind painter ( yes, a blind painter ) setting up his easel in a park. Even if you're able to buy into the idea that a blind man can paint by "hearing" colors ( he still needs a walking stick though ) the scene presents problems with probability. At one point, Michelle starts hanging John's paintings from ... bushes? Thin air? An invisible wall? It's not clear. And since there's been nothing to indicate that this is a piece informed by magical realism, it's a detail that's bothersome.
John's character also falls into the trope the mystically wise, all-seeing blind man. It's a tired stereotype at best. As John and Michelle talk, her role in the ill-fated convoy becomes clear, culminating with a revelation that should pack a powerful punch. It could do just that if it were part of a better play. Instead, "Harbur Gate" trails off where it should hit hard.
As the puzzle pieces of the convoy fall into place, Cahill hints at the possibilities of a drama that explores post-traumatic stress disorder, sexism in the armed forces and the unbreakable bonds forged by brothers and sisters in arms. Hints, though, are all she delivers.