By Caroline Burlingham Ellis Days after Sept. 11, an odd fact came to light. Playwright Tony Kushner, best know for the award-winning "Angels in America," had been working for months on a play partially set in the Afghanistan of 1998. Not only that, Kushner had written a line for a Taliban mullah, threatening that the jihad was coming to New York.
Such is the prophetic nature of art.
Today "Homebody/Kabul" is being performed by the Trinity Repertory Co. in Providence, Rhode Island, and raising theatergoers' consciousness about how culture, outlook and language shape both personal and world events.
But that is not all "Homebody/Kabul" is about. On the surface, the three-hour-plus tour de force deals with a neurotic, stay-at-home Londoner (Anne Scurria) whose fascination with words and with an old Afghanistan guidebook takes her to Kabul, where she promptly disappears.
Still on the surface, the play is about the Homebody's cold-fish husband (Brian McEleney as Milton Ceiling) and their troubled, twenty-something daughter (Angela Brazil as Priscilla) going to Kabul to learn what happened to the woman, a task that expands to embrace learning what is happening to Kabul. It's also about the seekers' interpreter (Stephen Thorne as Quango Twistleton), an upper-class, heroin-addicted lover of Afghanistan who works for a quasi nongovernmental organization and falls for the prickly Priscilla partly because it's not possible to meet any other women in Taliban-dominated Kabul. And the play is about the Afghans from varied walks of life and ethnic groups that the Westerners encounter.
The play also appears to be a dramatic interpretation of themes in Jason Eliot's book "An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan," which looks back through centuries of history in Afghanistan, the crossroads of Asia, and forward to trouble arising from Western ignorance and neglect. One Eliot theme that Kushner makes his own is that Westerners are navel-gazing, selfish, self-pitying neurotics who have "succumbed to luxury," whereas Afghans are basically optimistic, generous and practical as they struggle merely to survive in increasingly horrific deprivation.
But most of all, "Homebody/Kabul" is about the power and weakness of words. From the start it wraps the audience in a kind of delirium of language. The entire first act is a never-boring monologue by the Homebody, filled with delicious-sounding English words few theatergoers could possibly know. In the other two acts the audience is treated to a swirling maelstrom of Esperanto, Dari, Pashtu, Arabic, French and probably a few others. The words collide against one another like atoms in a nuclear reactor, with similarly startling effects.
Who could forget the passionate delight that a Kabul hat peddler (Deep Katdare) experiences listening to prohibited Frank Sinatra songs on CD? The shrug-of-the shoulders lyrics suddenly take on profound new meanings, as the peddler intones, "A door marked nevermore, that wasn't there before" -- and collapses, weeping for a lost, beloved Kabul.
Words are powerful but simultaneously, as the poet Shelley has said, "Words are weak, the glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak." Kushner characters, imperfect and confused, are seekers of truth, and through the simultaneously revealing and concealing power of words, they struggle to make sense of the world. The passion of their delivery is at times so communicative that playgoers suddenly feel invested with the gift of tongues and can understand the unfamiliar languages without having every word interpreted. As in "Angels in America," Kushner's exuberance scatters humor and light over essentially dark themes and suggests the barest hint of hope in his ending, which, significantly, is wordless.
"Homebody/Kabul" was directed by Oskar Eustis, now in his eighth season as Trinity Rep's artistic director. Eugene Lee created sets that move the action from a realistic, sturdy library and conservatory in a London home to the more dreamlike and changeable mean streets of Kabul. Deb Sullivan designed the lighting and Peter Sasha Hurowitz, the sound. The costumes by William Lane are apt and evocative, with those famous burkhas covering so many secrets. One cannot tell if a Western woman hides beneath the flowing robes, an Afghan woman, a male spy -- or Frank Sinatra.
"Homebody/Kabul" runs through April 21. For information, call (401) 351-4242.