GRIPPING PLAY EXPLORES THE TANGLED WEB BORN OF AN IDEALISTIC WAR
Set primarily in Pakistan along the Afghan border, J.T. Rogers’ Blood and Gifts begins in 1981, a critical point in the Cold War. Brezhnev’s Russian invasion of Afghanistan has Reagan in a quagmire: how does the U.S. attempt to stop the spread of communism without creating another Vietnam? CIA agent Jim Warnock (Kelly AuCoin) accepts the assignment to find a way to sneak weapons to the Afghan rebels (mujahideen) so that they can repel the Soviet forces. But there are problems behind closed doors. Since the Afghan people are not a united front, how does the U.S. know which factions to fund, and what will the consequences be if a supported group rises to power? Even if the rebels fend off the Soviets, what will become of those weapons afterward? When there is no right answer and every gain leads to more heartache elsewhere, the negotiations and terrifying guesswork can be as devastating as battle.
Rogers’ play uncovers how overly simplistic it is to view this as a Russian-American conflict; our main character learns quickly that there are too many balls to juggle, and thousands of lives will be lost with each fumble. In this taut west coast premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, driven by Lucie Tiberghien’s tight, fast-paced direction, Rogers layers secret upon secret, masterfully blending the art of historical fiction with the intense intrigue of a spy novel you can’t put down.
Added to an already treacherous situation is Simon Craig, Warnock’s nerve-wracked, alcohol-challenged British compatriot who lacks his needed support from Parliament. Daniel Pearce offers the most delicious performance of the evening as Craig, adding frequent laughs that are tempered with beautiful moments where we witness just how much of a defense mechanism his humor is.
Demosthenes Chrysan is potent as Abdullah Khan, Jim’s safest Afghan connection, who never fails to remind us that being the more moderate Afghan does not make him an American, even as the moderate, American-friendly group they support are humorously obsessed with American music. Meanwhile, Col. Afridi (Amir Arison) of the Pakistan military intelligence is being uncooperative; he wants the bulk of the American offering in the hands of a fundamentalist leader who sees this as an Islamic holy war. Triney Sandoval is chilling as Warnock’s Russian counterpart Dmitri Gromov, who delivers frightening insights with a laugh; when Dmitri’s armor fractures, the humanity of Warnock’s enemy/friend is palpable.
AuCoin is compelling as Warnock, drawing us into the character’s internal crisis as he is torn between his patriotism, his integrity, his compassion, his desperate longing to be back in the U.S. with his wife, and his need to keep his job – a job which includes tenuous promises, growing disagreements with his stateside boss about what actions to take, and telling Congress what it wants to hear (Geoffrey Wade delivers a strong performance as a Southern senator who wants everything tied up neatly and precisely).
In one interview with Rogers, the playwright neither quite confirms nor denies that Warnock is based on a real agent but stresses the importance of gathering material from those who were there. Though its characters are fictional, the well-researched and accurate subject matter can be complicated. Arrive early to read the historical information in the playbill to familiarize yourself with some of the organizations and acronyms.
Whatever the line between fiction and fact, Blood and Gifts awakens in us a reminder not to believe all that we hear, and to beware the temptation to make assumptions that any group of people is single-minded. And while Mr. Rogers does not hit us over the head with the foreshadowing of the events in the play, it is difficult to walk out of the performance without thinking about the chaotic region which was abandoned in 1991. After all, this is the country that the U.S. would invade a decade later because of the problems that it played a part in creating.
photos by Craig Schwartz
Blood and Gifts
La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum in San Diego (Regional Theater)
scheduled to end on July 8
for tickets, visit http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org