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When a playwright’s message is dire, it’s useful to have a few theatrical miracles to back it up, and Ethan McSweeny’s breathtaking mounting of The Persians has plenty.

There’s the stagewide cyclorama that lets the director blast Western literature’s oldest surviving play into orbit, Google Earth–style, just as it’s getting under way. The beach of red sand that morphs from a lush Persian carpet into a sea of gore. The mirrored wall of lights that seems simply utilitarian until it’s time to bake the play’s warmongers in disgrace. And the startling, climactic rain of blood that rattles whatever part of a playgoer’s psyche Aeschylus hasn’t already rattled with words that echo across more than two millennia of human folly.

For the saddest thing about this ancient tragedy, in which a head of state leads the most powerful empire of his time into a ruinous war, is how little has changed since Aeschylus penned it in 472 B.C.E. Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation, commissioned just as the Bush administration was going to war in Iraq, may underscore the contemporary parallels a bit insistently in spots, but the basic outline is there in the original: an inexperienced leader whose father governed moderately but whose own style is marked by extremism and arrogance; aging advisers from the father’s era who lobby for an unnecessary war to be fought far from home; overconfidence based on military superiority; the leadership’s (mis)underestimation of an enemy that’s defending its turf against a hated invader. The more things change….

At the Lansburgh Theatre, on a stage backed by a curving screen and centered on a pile of overturned chairs that look like a sculptor’s notion of civilization in ruins, the actors assemble in modern dress to offer a quick historical overview before the play proper. Aeschylus fought alongside a brother who died, they tell us, in the very fighting the playwright describes in such horrific, eyewitness detail. They were fighting for Athens, a tiny city-state besieged by a mighty empire, and as the actors’ words position the play geographically, images projected on the screen whisk us from an ancient amphitheater upward, into orbit. The boundaries of Iran, Iraq, and Greece are superimposed over a satellite view of the Middle East and dissolve into the boundaries of ancient Persia as we’re plunged back to Earth and to actors who have now draped their modern clothing in long robes. But if their appearance is different, their manner is unchanged as they ruminate on the fate of the young men sent into battle, the wives and mothers who listen hopefully for a returning footfall, and the glorious victory they all anticipate for the most impressive fighting force ever assembled.

“Defeat is impossible,” says one.

“Defeat is unthinkable,” answer the others.

“What can’t such an army do?”

If a few doubts surface among these old men who’ve sent young men to war (“Might we offend the gods with our brazen confidence?”) they’re banished when Persia’s Queen Atossa (Helen Carey, wearing so much gold she might almost be gilded) arrives looking at once majestic and frazzled. She’s had a disturbing dream about her son, Xerxes (Erin Gann), who has led their troops so far from the safety of home, and these elder statesmen rush to reassure her. Victory is assured, they tell her. Portents be damned.

Except that at about that moment, a barefoot messenger (Scott Parkinson) arrives from the front, his scalp bloodied and his combat fatigues little more than rags, to say that all is lost. In a long speech, harrowing in its plainspokenness, he describes the mighty machinery of war brought low, a fleet destroyed, the bodies of commanders “glittering in their useless armor” as they batter the rocks, the cries of drowning soldiers growing faint as they slip, one by one, to watery graves.

Recriminations naturally follow, as does a visit from the ghost of Xerxes’ father, Darius (Ted van Griethuysen), who mourns a civilization lost to the “unholy arrogance” of the “god-mocking boy” he fathered. And finally Xerxes returns, so shamed by the disaster his hubris has caused (OK, so not everything matches up) that he craves the escape of death.

McSweeny orchestrates a rush of images that are alternately majestic (the queen’s arrival) and worthy of a horror film (red sand dripping like blood through her fingers). James Noone’s modernist playing area—a black circle backed by that curved Cinerama-style screen—expands dramatically when the screen flies heavenward to reveal a mirrored back wall fronted by a sea of scarlet sand that’s much grander but somehow permits sharper focus on the personal. At the rear of the stage, spotlit by Kevin Adams’ moody lighting (when the designer isn’t casting spells with ethereal glows or blinding the audience so a ghost can dematerialize), two percussionists and a cellist create an eerie soundscape—the pounding din of battle, the scratching of torn fingernails on rocks, the shattering of ship’s hulls, the moans of the wounded.

McLaughlin’s script goes to some pains to create living, breathing characters. She’s broken up what would ordinarily be the chanted and sung lines of the Greek Chorus and distributed them among the king’s advisory council, identified in the program as “Chairman,” “Interior,” “Navy,” “Justice,” and so on, with Carey’s queen listening more to some of them than she does to others. While this goes a decently long way toward filling the stage with individuals rather than with royal principals and an undifferentiated chorus, it doesn’t quite eliminate the inherently declamatory nature of the play, which may be why McSweeny spends so much time on arresting visuals. Stage miracles come in many forms—his follow the blueprint Aeschylus created for what was then a quasi-ceremonial theater near the dawn of the form. They’re poetic and intellectual rather than emotional.

Still, the director and his performers have created one moment of fiercely personal tension at the play’s climax. It comes when Xerxes kneels in disgrace before his mother and she starts to reach out toward him. For a long, wrenching moment, it’s not clear whether she’s reaching out in fury at the pain he’s caused or in compassion for the pain he’s in, and after so much declaimed agony, so much breath-catching imagery, this private moment catches the audience up short. The director prolongs the suspense for an extra couple of beats and—as the sheer emotional rawness expands to fill the auditorium—almost seems to point the way to the more intimate theater we know today.

Flash forward a couple of millennia to a significantly less regal King who’s having trouble with his kingdom—JPW King (Howard Shalwitz), a nebbishy English “dynamatologist” adrift in Ireland. This not-quite-therapist’s incomprehensible, psycho-philosophical theories champion life’s limitless possibilities, and they’d ring truer if The Gigli Concert didn’t open with him sitting in his boxers, swigging vodka as the sun comes up and dithering about calling the married woman who tells him daily to stop pestering her.

King is a such a mess that he scarcely realizes that the curt, “self-made” building contractor who pounds on his door a moment later has come not to evict him but to seek his therapeutic help. This unhappy, fiercely practical Irishman (Mitchell Hébert) who refuses to give his name but expects a breakthrough in six sessions is at loose ends, his marriage unraveling, his anger overflowing. Queried about why he’s come, he expresses a desire to sing like Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. King, who hasn’t had a client in years, decides this is something they can build on.

What follows is a meeting of opposites—two miserable souls whose approaches to life differ so markedly they barely share a common language, the Irishman forever defining himself (“I don’t want normal adjustment”), King forever defining terms (“Life is substance; substance is nonsense”). Give them an existential construct, and they’ll soon have it deconstructed and lying in pieces on the floor. Let a practical issue raise its head, and they’ll bat it around until it becomes as ethereal as the air in King’s office.

They’re a philosophical Odd Couple, a therapy-obsessed Didi and Gogo practicing pseudo-psychiatry as contact sport. And in Tom Prewitt’s joyous original-cast revival of a production he mounted to cheers a decade ago at Woolly Mammoth, they are enormously appealing theatrical company.

Tom Murphy’s play remains an oddly transcendent mix of words and music in which it’s sometimes hard to tell one from the other. The language is ravishing and lush as Shalwitz negotiates the tricky verbal arias King improvises in response to his patient’s shifting moods, altering texture and color on the fly. Hébert’s Irishman is so changeable, he almost seems like different characters in his vocal riffs, ferocious one moment, wry the next, and in one wrenching breakdown, helplessly vulnerable.

It makes a strange sort of sense that literal music, sung by Gigli on vintage recordings, should be the bridge between these two nearly lost souls. A disk whirls on a glistening chrome turntable, filling Anne Gibson’s gorgeously cluttered setting with soaring operatic song, a window sill is mounted, a pilfered hat gets cocked Gene Kelly–style, and transference occurs with an ease that would startle Freud.

I find I have left out Mona, King’s largely neglected lover, which is unconscionable because life has mostly left her out, too. A salt-of-the-earth type as played warmly by Kimberly Schraf, she’s understanding and undemanding, dealt a weak hand in life but content to take comfort where she finds it and to give comfort where she can. She is calm, radiant, complete. As for the men, they’re still seeking. “We have tried laughing and raging and philosophy,” says King to his patient. “Have you considered surgery?”CP