Before Eve Ensler turned interviews with Bosnian rape victims into one of her now-famous monologues, she used them as the basis for "Necessary Targets." That play, which wasn't produced until after "The Vagina Monologues" garnered Ensler worldwide attention, is also centered on women, specifically how they are affected by war.
"Necessary Targets," currently being staged by Olney Theatre Center as part of its Potomac Theatre Festival, opens in the Manhattan office of J.S. (Julie-Ann Elliott), a prim psychiatrist interested in working with women in war-torn Bosnia. She's speaking with Melissa (Jen Plants), a young trauma counselor, about assisting her on the project, though Melissa's defensiveness while answering J.S.'s questions initially makes her seem like a patient.
The pair end up traveling together to a Bosnian refugee camp, where they spend time with five women who have little in common but their sex and their current predicament. Though each of the women, who range from twentysomething to elderly, is given time to tell her dramatic story, Ensler keeps the focus on the counselors.
This approach, along with the play's brevity, prevents anyone from being terribly sympathetic. In trying to demonstrate how war affects everyone, from young mothers to middle-age wives to gray-haired ranchers, Ensler reduces the refugees to one-dimensional characters who do little but wear their personal tragedies like placards. Though Olney's cast members, particularly Scarlett Black as a delusional rape victim named Seada and Helen Hedman as Zlata, a former doctor, do occasionally wrest chills and poignancy from Ensler's sketches, the cumulative effect is clinical instead of gut-wrenching.
Ensler, in fact, is guilty of exactly what she has her characters accuse each other of doing: The Bosnian women believe that foreign volunteers such as J.S. and Melissa are interested in the refugees' stories only to further their own causes. In "Necessary Targets," the plight of the women seems secondary to the psychological changes the counselors undergo while staying with them.
But the pair's changes in attitude -- the nearly robotic and highly organized J.S. becomes laid-back, while quick-tempered Melissa turns unfeeling and methodical -- occur so suddenly as to seem simply out of character. And when J.S., who somewhat comically brought to Bosnia a neatly packed suitcase of designer clothes, gushes, "Oh, the honesty! Women! Oh, my heart!" after an evening in which the refugees begin to drink to forget their troubles, the moment feels as ridiculously self-indulgent as the good doctor's Christian Dior robe.
Ensler takes a few satisfying jabs at American culture in "Necessary Targets," including the popularity of therapy and the luxury of a lifestyle in which quitting caffeine is a major decision (in one excellent scene, a cup of coffee becomes a symbol of solidarity). Again, however, in a play allegedly about the atrocities of war, the sharpest commentary shouldn't be about the absurdity of the States.
Olney's staging is a handsome one, from J.S.'s elegant cream-colored office to the gorgeous lighting, which mimics a sunrise. The beauty of Bosnia, in fact, sparks one of the play's more touching moments, when it's tearfully described by Zlata as the aspect of her old life that she misses most.
Too soon, however, the scene shifts to J.S. back in New York, babbling into a tape recorder about her experience -- and once again shifting the focus of "Necessary Targets" from sympathetic Bosnian to ugly American.
Necessary Targets, by Eve Ensler. Directed by Cornelia Pleasants. Costumes, Vasilija Zivanic; sound, Karin Graybash; lighting, Jeff Carnevale; set, Milagros Ponce de Leon. Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes. Through June 27 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.