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Women suffer, struggle, and survive in Eve Ensler’s Necessary Targets, a thoughtful, humane, rather earnest play about the 1990s Bosnian war and its psychological fallout. Unfortunately, the piece itself, in the hands of director Cornelia Pleasants at the Olney Theatre Center, likewise suffers, primarily from a pervasive sense of its own nobility. Its actors, one or two notable exceptions notwithstanding, struggle valiantly but in vain against a production of smothering scope. The audience, when the evening’s 100-odd intermissionless minutes have at last expired, will be grateful to have met Ensler’s survivors—and just as grateful to see the last of them.
There’s melodrama—by the bucketful—but Necessary Targets isn’t drama, precisely. It’s an artistic response, a theater piece of the sort written consciously to “do honor to” the pain of a population. Self-consciously, to be blunt: Ensler, to her credit, understands that she can neither truly absorb nor fully represent the horror of a genocidal war, and she reflects that understanding in a pair of lead characters—a wealthy New York psychiatrist and a hardened young war correspondent—who parachute into Sarajevo as part of a Western relief effort that’s half caring, half condescending. Julie-Ann Elliott is J.S., the chilly shrink whose appointment to a presidential commission takes her outside the clean cocoon of her movie-star practice, exposing her to real trauma for the first time. Jen Plants is Melissa, the rage-numbed journalist and author who’s been to Haiti and to Rwanda recording the stories of women in conflict zones; she’s a do-gooder of the hard-eyed and haunted sort, addicted to the adrenaline of situations that make her own pain seem inconsequential.
Necessary Targets is less about what these two unlikely mercy-angels do for the refugee women assembled in Milagros Ponce de Leon’s cavernous warehouse of a set than about how indelibly those women and their stories mark the Americans’ psyches. There is Barbara Pinolini’s wise, earthy Jelena; Rana Kay’s savvy if starstruck teen Nuna; Halo Wines’ ancient peasant Azra, mourning the loss of her cow and her garden; Scarlett Black’s shellshocked young mother Seada, clinging fiercely to her swaddled bundle and crying for her own mama in the night; and Helen Hedman’s brittle, sarcastic, fiercely intelligent Zlata, herself a doctor once, now just another displaced and disjointed life. Ensler understands, and communicates with a certain clarity and grace, that the real horror of war is not in its immediate violence; it’s in how women like these must live the rest of their lives, must remember and re-evaluate everything in their past, must experience each thing old and new through the distorting lens of that violence and its attendant memories. “It isn’t the cruelty that broke my heart,” says Hedman’s quietly devastating Zlata in one of the evening’s few genuinely moving moments. “Cruelty, like stupidity, is quick, immediate….Cruelty is generic. Cruelty is boring—boring into the center of the part of you that goes away. We are dead—all of us—to the suffering. There is too much of it—but remind us of the beauty….Remind us how we once sang….[H]ow safe we felt, how easy it was to be friends.”
Necessary Targets is about how much commingled joy and agony there is in discovering a connection to a desperately wounded community whose healing, no matter how hard you try to help, must come slowly and from within. Ensler handles these ideas sensitively, notwithstanding a maudlin moment or two. (It’s better to let Azra’s breakthrough moment, which involves an imagined, therapist-assisted conversation with her cow, pass unremarked.) But the same can’t be said for Pleasants, who heavy-foots it all night long, emphasizing moments that need no sharpening to make their point and generally dialing up the schmaltz. And why, for heaven’s sake, would any director stage one of her play’s chief revelation scenes in a quadrant of the playing space that’s entirely obscured for all but the lucky patrons in the front four rows?
Pleasants does manage one startlingly effective bit of direction: the production’s final image, which finds Elliott’s utterly changed analyst back in her sleek Manhattan quarters, surrounded by packing materials, at a loss as to what might be next for her, knowing only that it cannot possibly be like what came before. Ensler’s stage directions specify that life in the Bosnian camp continue in another part of the playing area, and Pleasants has J.S. look out her window toward it as she talks about them. She can’t see it, of course, except in her head. The choice—the pane of glass between the two spaces, the physical separation between people who will forever be emotionally linked—adds to the weight of the moment, reinforcing the idea that although J.S.’s Bosnian women will always be a part of her, she can never truly be one of them. And Elliott rises to the moment as Hedman has just risen to hers, delivering a crucial speech with a quiet conviction that’s far more affecting than any of the evening’s wanton histrionics.
There might have been less of the last, of course, if the company had staged this intensely personal play in a less impersonal space than its barn of a mainstage, where the cast is forced to emote on an improbable scale. There’s a perfectly nice black box on the Olney campus, and summer after summer, directors in the Potomac Theatre Festival use it to confront audiences with plays as immediate and urgent as this one. Necessary Targets would’ve had a better shot at its mark in the intimacy of that room. CP