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Witnessing War Through 'Brown Eyes'

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Zadravec's own trajectory nudged her ever so gently toward writing. Both her parents worked at The Washington Post: Her mother, Katharine, wrote for what used to be known as the women's pages; and her father was a sportswriter who worked under the byline Martie Zad. After graduating from Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, she majored in theater and English at Connecticut College and then, after a short spell in Washington, made her way to Manhattan, for the intermittent rewards of a career on stages off- and off-off-Broadway. (There were also more lucrative paydays, playing "mom roles" in TV spots for household products and pizza chains.)

"I used to always be the person who wrote a speech for the cast party," she says. The pats on the shoulder encouraged her to try to develop her skills in playwriting workshops, which led to what she considers a validating milestone: earning spots in the summers of 2005 and 2006 to the Sewanee Writers' Conference at the University of the South. (Another of her plays, "Save Me," about born-again Christians, was named best play at the 2007 Baltimore Playwrights Festival.)

It was after the experience of Sewanee, and some mentoring by the politically-minded playwright Lee Blessing, that she began to develop "Honey Brown Eyes," a piece over which she would struggle for the right focus: How does one create dialogue for distant events so traumatic that even those who lived through them can't find words for?

"I wanted to write something about this war, but I wasn't an authority to write about it from the inside of the [refugee] camps, or about the events leading up to it," the playwright says. It was after an emigre friend described to her the sort of pop music they listened to -- new wave and punk -- that she began to envision her story, one that threaded the music of the period into the plot. Thus, the collapse of a band before the war takes on a special significance over the course of the play.

"In spite of the play's spareness, it's meticulously researched," says Strain, a sought-after Washington actor who's spending a season as a resident artist with Theater J. "There are little details, bands that people were listening to, that are just so culturally specific. You can tell, she did the work."

Lefkow, who also grew up in Washington and has known Zadravec's family since they were children, says that the play's pop-culture touchstones are no small matter, in the attempt to acquaint theatergoers with characters living through incomprehensible savagery. "This was a war being fought by people humming our music, watching our sitcoms, defining themselves as a society that had aspirations to join the West," says Lefkow, who lived in Paris at the time, and whose journalist husband covered the war in Croatia. "It was shocking for the rest of Europe, which sat there with their mouths open."

At one point in the play, as a tense standoff unfolds in one of the apartments, the script calls for the sounds of a TV laugh track to fill the stage. The moment is not made entirely of fiction.

"I was talking to my Croatian friend," Zadravec says, explaining her methods of cultural excavation. "And he said, 'Alf.' I loved 'Alf.' "

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