THEY CAN'T all be gems.
We understand that a great play is a rarity. Many more are solid but banal. Others, perhaps visionary but impenetrable. (Still others, of course, are just plain lousy.) As theatergoers, our challenge is to look beyond the obvious flaws to appreciate the art and insights that surround them. And remember: The folks putting on the play are trying to do the very same thing.
Cornelia Pleasants has directed two productions of Eve Ensler's "Necessary Targets" -- first a student production at Boston University and now for Olney Theatre Center's Potomac Theatre Festival -- yet she freely admits to believing the script has issues. "At first I resisted it because I could see that there were lots of structural problems," she recalls.
"Targets" centers on two American mental health professionals (Julie-Ann Elliott and Jen Plants) who bring their wildly divergent therapeutic tactics to a Bosnian refugee camp. Reviews of the play -- including those of the 2002 off-Broadway production -- tend to focus on its awkward construction. And yet . . . "What kept haunting me was some of the scenes of the play and the characters of the play and the actual story of Bosnia," Pleasants says. "As a theater person, I was curious about it."
Pleasants ultimately decided that the play's challenges were part of its appeal, particularly in a teaching situation. "I think Eve Ensler's strength is that she's a great documentarian," she says. In fact, Ensler based her play's five Bosnian characters on extensive firsthand interviews with female refugees, exploring the often-underreported women's experience in wartime. "[Ensler] records the stories, but writing characters is not her strength. She gave us the words, and we have to find the characters, to fill in. And that's the fun of it, that's the joy of doing this play."
Still, the director wasn't sure she was ready to take on "Targets" a second time, but the Olney opportunity proved too tempting to pass up. And Pleasants credits her cast with helping to smooth out some of the play's rough edges. "What Eve Ensler wrote is an amalgamation of many women's stories -- every [character]. And there are many difficult linear leaps -- or I would say, nonlinear leaps -- of their behavior that makes it quite difficult and challenging," she explains. "But everybody, I think, came up with really interesting solutions."
Pleasants admits that other problems remain unsolved. The stories told by Ensler's refugees still feel shoehorned into the proceedings. "When we talked about redoing the play, I was really thinking about rewriting," Pleasants recalls. "And then I thought, 'It's not my job. I just have to leave it as it is and let it be what it is and hope that people do discuss it even if they get mad about it.' So I really wasn't upset about the reviews because I would rather people were sort of angry, because anger means that a nerve was touched," she says.
Perfect or not, Pleasants says "I think it's a play worth discussing and it's a time in the world's history that we need to look at closely."