'Eyes'-Witness Account Of the Brutality of War

Maia DeSanti and Alexander Strain in
Maia DeSanti and Alexander Strain in "Honey Brown Eyes" at Theater J. (By Stan Barouh -- Theater J)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

When the crackle of automatic gunfire erupts outside, the old lady in the dowdy kitchen turns toward the window, warily. Her face registers neither surprise nor terror. That's how numbing this routine has become to her: a violent moment to be waved away in a little heave of disgust.

The scene could be in an American inner city or any ravaged metropolis in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia. In the case of "Honey Brown Eyes," though, the shellshocked locale is Bosnia, where in the early 1990s, exotic names on a map such as Tuzla and Mostar and Visegrad became instantly synonymous with sectarian warfare of the most savage, house-to-house variety.

Yet for all the epic-scale horror dramatized in Stefanie Zadravec's admirable nail-biter of a play -- which is receiving a world premiere at Theater J -- it is through sighs and other tiny markers that we get the most incisive tally of the conflict's toll. Pink backpacks, fresh oranges, the background noise from a sitcom's laugh track: The work is filled, too, with reminders of the shrugging everyday, the blandness of normal life that under desperate circumstances can suddenly seem so precious.

"Honey Brown Eyes" is, in a sense, itself an expression of shock at how the latticework of a civilized country can come unglued overnight. Theater J takes into the fold here a fledgling dramatist who has composed the type of conscience play for which this company has shown an affinity. The work's concerns prove to be a good match for a troupe that, in pieces such as Israeli playwright Motti Lerner's "Pangs of the Messiah," has sought to humanize the challenges to societies threatened with annihilation, from both within and without.

Under Jessica Lefkow's sensitive direction, Zadravec's drama makes for an absorbing evening, especially when it lets its traumatized characters reveal, in muted exchanges, who they were before the nation broke down into armed camps of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Still, given the alternating rhythms of the piece -- it occurs simultaneously in besieged kitchens in two Bosnian cities -- the tension with which Zadravec seeks to grip us becomes a bit difficult to sustain. Although both plots hold an audience, trying to balance the sentimental and searing sides gets harder, as Act 2 jumps ever more rapidly from one apartment to the other.

It might simply be a practical matter of how better to stage the divided (and interconnected) narrative, because the playwright has created sharp portraits of lives of sufficient but not overworked complexity. And despite the welcoming connotations of the title, she keeps the sugar coating at bay. "Honey Brown Eyes" is at times a brutal mirror on what we have learned from journalistic accounts about the horrors of the war that convulsed Bosnia from 1992 to 1995.

The piece begins in the Visegrad kitchen of a Muslim woman (Maia DeSanti) broken into by a Bosnian Serb soldier (Alexander Strain), whose thuggish mandate is to imprison the apartment building's women and children and ship them to a detention camp where further barbaric treatment awaits. Strain's Dragan keeps a weapon trained on DeSanti's Alma, as they wait for the daughter whom his list tells him lives there -- and whom Alma insists doesn't.

A parallel intrusion plays out in the Sarajevo kitchen of Jovanka (Barbara Rappaport), a Bosnian Serb pensioner struggling to survive in a flat near dangerous Sniper Alley. Into her apartment barges the terrified Denis (Joel Reuben Ganz), a deserter from the Bosnian Muslim resistance seeking refuge from Serbian pursuers. Jovanka, a lover of classical music, is a throwback to a secular Bosnia where no one much cared whether a neighbor was Muslim or Serb. Deserted by her own daughter, the defiant Jovanka offers Denis a meal and a place to sleep.

On designer James Kronzer's revolving set, Alma's and Jovanka's kitchens rotate into place. (The revolving device, inserted on the compact stage of the Goldman Theater, is a neat idea, but since the kitchens don't look that different, perhaps the back-and-forth is more work than it's worth.) All the while, the people hunkered down in each apartment open up about their pasts, confidences that are supposed to reveal the astonishing degree to which the war has come between old friends and acquaintances.

The scenes of Alma's captivity evoke terrifying uncertainty. DeSanti creates for us the compelling outline of a woman holding out courageously against the utter surrender of dignity. With the glimpses he provides of a softness behind a soldier's desensitized eyes, Strain infuses Dragan with a near-heartbreaking sense of the man he's been forced to become.

The diminutive Rappaport makes for an endearing Jovanka, both fragile and resilient, the kind of woman who could improvise a nutritious meal from stale turnips and sip tea through an air raid. And Ganz presents a solid picture here of a conscript caught up in events for which he has not the slightest aptitude.

Although each character is allowed to show some mettle, Zadravec doesn't overplay the heroism. Putting them all around kitchen sinks, she wants us to see how, in the midst of incomprehensible cruelty, tragedy could come to be something utterly average.

Honey Brown Eyes, by Stefanie Zadravec. Directed by Jessica Lefkow. Lighting, Jason Arnold; costumes, Misha Kachman; sound, Matt Nielson; fight director, Paul Gallagher. With Grady Weatherford, Shane Wallis, Taylor Dawson. About two hours. Through Nov. 30 at Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit

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