The long shadow of imperialism gets an enhanced interrogation in 4,380 Nights. Annalisa Dias’ world premiere conflates the 21st century legal limbo of an Algerian man in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay with an Algerian who abets a French army officer’s abuses during the 19th century occupation. Ahmad Kamal, a strong actor who also played a Middle Eastern man under suspicion in Mosaic Theater’s The Return last summer, anchors the show, playing the Algerians of both centuries. In the 19th, he seeks the occupier’s favor. In the 21st, he just wants to be released from prison—a prison where the lights never go out, and where sleep deprivation and other forms of don’t-call-it-torture are a matter of course. The title refers to the length of his confinement.
It’s an odd coincidence that 4,380 Nights, like Sovereignty—another new play debuting in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival—asks us to follow discrete but overlapping narratives set nearly 200 years apart, with fictional characters in the present but real historical figures in the past. (Or at least one historical figure, in this case: Aimable Pélissier, the French officer played with oily menace by Rex Daugherty, was a real person, whose brutality in bringing the locals to heel caused a scandal at home in France in 1845. His career survived, and he was appointed Governor-General of Algeria 15 years later.) 4,380 Nights is the more difficult to follow of the pair, but also the more haunting and poetic, not least because Dias’ characters don’t speak like they’re giving a TED Talk.
Scenic designer Elizabeth Jenkins drapes the small stage of Signature Theatre’s intimate Ark space in a curtain of chains, with a simple metal table in the center. Kamal, dressed in a prisoner’s blaze-orange jumpsuit, is shackled to the floor.
In the 21st century scenes, Kamal has a convincing rapport with Michael John Casey, who’s marvelous as an attorney who spends years trying to navigate the Kafkaesque pop-up justice system established for “enemy combatants” scooped up in the post-9/11 dragnet. He’s acting out of a beleaguered sense of patriotism, and not the cheap, MAGA-hat kind. To him, the legal quicksand represents “a hole in the argument for the idea of who we are.” Daugherty recurs in the 21st century scenes, too, playing a military interrogator (or civilian contractor) whose simulated beating and physical humiliation of Kamal, fight directed by Robb Hunter, is persuasive enough to turn your stomach.
Lynette Rathnam is present as a character occupying yet another time and place. She’s identified only as The Woman, but she might be Scheherazade, the character from The Arabian Nights who persuades her serial-killer husband to spare her life each night by telling him an engrossing story but withholding the climax. The way The Woman’s story ultimately relates to the others is rewarding enough to wave away any momentary confusion. This is a work of genuine humanity and insight, and the relief you may feel once it finally releases you from its grip is genuine, too.
At Signature Theatre to Feb. 18. 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$89. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.