By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008
When Alexander Strain was asked last winter by Theater J to participate in a cold reading of a brand-new play -- set in war-ravaged Bosnia and written by an under-the-radar playwright named Stefanie Zadravec -- he came, understandably, to the wrong conclusion.
The whiff of authenticity in "Honey Brown Eyes," from colloquial snippets of Serbo-Croatian to the anguishing plights of ordinary souls, pointed to a work rooted in memory and personal travail.
"I had this assumption," recalls the actor, who read the part that day of a soldier who brutalizes a young Bosnian woman, "that it had to have been her family story."
Not even close. The nearest connection that the 40-year-old Zadravec -- a New York stage actress born in Washington and raised in Chevy Chase -- could claim was that her father's parents came from Slovenia, the sliver of an alpine republic that was the first state to break away from the former Yugoslavia. She had done a lot of homework, of course, researching the wars and atrocities that convulsed the disintegrating Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and collecting the accounts of Croatian and Serbian emigre friends in New York.
But Zadravec had never even been to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the scene of a savage, sectarian war between 1992 and 1995. Truth be told, she was on far more intimate terms with the stain-fighting properties of Spray 'N Wash -- a product she'd been hired to tout in TV commercials -- than the horrors of the conflict in the Balkans.
And yet, with "Honey Brown Eyes," which begins previews Wednesday in its world-premiere run at Theater J, the fledgling dramatist seems at the very least to have struck a nerve. One indication of the play's persuasiveness might be the swiftness with which it found a company willing to put it on. Theater J, which has demonstrated an appetite for original, topical plays with a geopolitical bent, was the first troupe to be shown the piece -- and scooped it up. In an era when a new American play can spend years in development -- or, simply, in a pile on a literary manager's desk -- the fast-track pace for Zadravec's drama is remarkable.
"When I read this play, I was both frightened and deeply moved," says Jessica Lefkow, the Catholic University-trained director who brought it to Theater J's attention and is now staging it -- with Strain in the central role of a Serbian soldier torn between hatred and conscience. "Stefanie's not pretending she's an expert on this war," Lefkow adds. "In fact, this play takes place in a couple of kitchens. She's just captured the way these people talk to each other."
Although the landscape of an interesting mind is the most important atlas at a playwright's disposal, imagination might not be enough when building a work around the idea of incendiary tribal hostility. For Zadravec, who approached this project wanting to write a play about war -- something she'd never experienced -- the challenge was to find a way into the lives of people who had undergone trials she could only discover through articles and museum exhibits.
"I was watching sitcoms and pursuing my dreams, and these were people in another part of the world, where their entire futures were cut short," Zadravec is saying on a recent Saturday, sitting in a bistro in Greenwich Village. "Your life just becomes about survival. It's, how do you live in a time of total chaos?"
The dots were connected for her in circuitous ways. Waiting tables at a Manhattan cafe run by emigres from Kosovo; visiting an exhibit in London about rape victims in Bosnian refugee camps; coaxing stories out of her Croatian friend all stoked her dramatic fire. As a result, "Honey Brown Eyes" distills Bosnia down to both the terrors confronted by average citizens and the American-influenced pop culture that, while flames rose, continued to supply the country's background noise.
In a somewhat parallel design, the drama plays out in besieged kitchens in Bosnian cities, Visegrad and Sarajevo, that were the staging grounds for some of the most horrific events of the war. The Visegrad scenes revolve around a Serbian soldier played by Strain, who terrorizes a young Bosnian Muslim woman portrayed by Maia DeSanti. At about the same time, the Sarajevo apartment of an old Serbian woman (Barbara Rappaport) is invaded by a traumatized Muslim resistance fighter (Joel Reuben Ganz) seeking a haven from the bloodshed.
The stories intertwine in a manner that illuminates the unsettling intimacy of cataclysm in a small country; the title refers obliquely to a crux of the work. "This was a crazy war," the playwright says, "where everybody knew each other."
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.' "