New American plays reviewed

The Corpse Washer

It’s a wonderful life, even if you live in Iraq.

That’s what I couldn’t help noticing about the new American play, the “Corpse Washer,” which recently premiered at Louisville’s Actor’s Theater. In its structure, it’s eerily similar to Frank Capra’s film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The main character is a young man born in and living in Iraq. Like Capra’s George Bailey, he yearns to escape the yoke of the family business and prove himself in the larger world.

Like George, our new hero finds himself saddled with a tedious, but needful family business, in this case corpse washing.

Like George, he has a dependent mother, a useless uncle, and a brother who somehow weaseled out from under the burden of corpse washing.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a compelling, at points even brilliant, play. And I would be lying if I didn’t admit to sitting on the edge of my seat.

But it may get credited with an originality it has not entirely achieved.

Its best accomplishment is capturing the decay of Iraq over three American invasions. The loss of hope and opportunity rings true, much to our shame.

The strongest scene is one in which the hero’s truck is surrounded by American troops and he fears for his life.

Neither the characters nor the audience can see the Americans. We know they’re there from the blinding lights and angry voices heard through distorting bullhorns.

Due to the immense talents of the cast, we know they can see guns pointing at them.

No one can understand what the US soldiers are saying. But we do know when they start laughing–because they have discovered that our hero is transporting his dead father’s body.

This is, of course, the kind of gross insensitivity that led to the scandal of Abu Ghraib.

The writer and producers take pains to make the characters look and act just like us. They wear jeans and T-shirts, they rock out to Springsteen, they have a strong sense of individual destiny.

This version of Iraq is unsullied by fanaticism, tribalism, and violence toward women.

It’s not so much an Iraq reimagined as an American suburb, but more an Iraq modeled on the suburbs of Capra’s American dream.

Hell, I was born and raised in America, and I have at least one woman hater and several religious crackpots in my family.

We’ve Come to Believe

A group of young people chants “We have a purpose!” in unison, led by a chipper youth leader hell bent on their indoctrination.

It seems creepy, but familiar. Many people in the audience (myself included) will have been part of church youth groups similar to this one.

As the scene plays out, it emerges that these young people have had to surrender their cars, and that the building doors are locked.

They are, in fact, prisoners.

One young man pulls a knife on the leader in a bid for escape, but the group manipulates his fear of isolation, and he quickly surrenders his knife and his doubt.

It’s at this point we learn that the group’s “purpose” is purification of the white race.

Thus opened the 2019 Humana Festival of new American plays.

The play, “We’ve Come to Believe,” by Kara Lee Corthron and associates, features a cast of young actors, all students in the Actor’s Theater Professional Training Company.

“We’ve Come to Believe” is actually a string of one act plays strongly unified by the theme of mob thinking. If you are hoping for any kind of glimpse into life affirming spiritual faith, this is not the play for you.

The white supremacists are closely followed by other scenes of irrational group thinking, including an empowerment seminar, led by a charismatic inspirational speaker, and a series of witch hunts.

At one point, an exasperated young man declares “we’re gay, but we’re not communists!”

(Even though the communist witch hunts were driven more by antisemitism than by homophobia.)

The point, of course, is that jumping on a bandwagon is an easy, but often foolish, thing to do.

Not that belief is always a bad thing, but we have to be careful about choosing our beliefs.

I watched this play on the heels of watching Ethan Hawk’s “First Reformed,” a brilliant film about a minister who suffers a crisis of conscience. He slowly learns that the church he works for is funded by one of the world’s most polluting corporations.

His despair over the church’s failure to fight climate change and wildlife decimation leads him to the brink of suicide.

Turns out that staying on the right side of history is harder than it looks.

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