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Many Americans now spend their days worrying about whether nuclear war is imminent and what lies the President will propagate next, so it’s easy to forget that less than 15 years ago, another man in that role also lied to achieve a goal. Arena Stage’s latest production, Intelligence, looks at the origins of the Iraq War from the perspective of one woman impacted by it from its inception: CIA covert operative Valerie Plame.
Intelligence is the third entry in Arena’s Power Plays program, which commissions playwrights to write works—25 when all is said and done—set in every decade between 1776 and the present day. This makes turning the early Bush years into a historical drama somewhat sensible, but the play fails to deliver much more than a rehashing of facts. Whether it’s because everyone in the audience remembers most of the Plame affair or because Jacqueline E. Lawton’s script doesn’t build out the character of Plame enough, the production turns an interesting espionage story into a quiet, domestic drama.
When we first meet Valerie, she’s in a Georgetown boutique posing as an energy consultant named Kate. But she’s not only there to pick up a scarf—she also reveals her real job to the shop owner, Leyla, and demands contact information for Leyla’s uncle Malik, an Iraqi national living in Jordan who worked with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. After a series of discussions in Jordan, Valerie sends him back to Iraq to contact other men he worked with who might know whether or not Hussein was continuing to develop nuclear weapons, just as the administration prepares for the invasion.
At the same time, Valerie’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, writes an op-ed in the New York Times claiming he found no evidence that Hussein obtained enriched uranium from Niger. This upsets the Bush administration, leading to the decision to leak Valerie’s identity to columnist Robert Novak. Suddenly, Valerie is not just a dedicated foreign servant working to protect her asset. She’s also facing off against a husband who accuses her of being a puppet of an overreaching executive branch and work superiors who reprimand her for not following their instructions.
This is where the the play could get interesting if it explored what drew Valerie to a CIA career in the first place or why she made the choices she eventually did, but in a 90-minute presentation, there’s no room for additional details. The audience sees her as just another woman who seemingly has it all—a loving marriage, young children, a demanding but high-powered job—but can’t make everything work. Instead of making Valerie seem relatable, this takes away from the uniqueness of her circumstances.
The five-person cast, centered around Tony nominee Hannah Yelland as Valerie, makes the most of an uneven script. Nora Achrati and Ethan Hova, as Leyla and Dr. Malik Nazari, capture the shock and confusion of getting wrapped up in a CIA mission particularly well. Projections of speeches by President George W. Bush and CNN appearances of Dick Cheney, designed by Jared Mezzocchi, set the scene in what is otherwise a relatively spare set, sending the audience back into the tense days of 2003, when a pointless war dominated the national dialogue. A line suggesting that Americans should never have supported the invasion was met with knowing laughter by an openly liberal crowd.
The real Plame and Wilson, it should be said, played no part in the creation of the play. Despite that fact, Lawton’s play is more of a dramatization of real events than a nuanced drama. Several characters never reveal their deep-seated motivations, leaving the audience wondering what the stakes actually are. That Valerie was brave enough to speak truth to her powerful superiors matters, but in this production, we’re still missing several steps that led her to that point.
At Arena Stage to April 9. 1101 6th St. SW. $71-$91. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.