It's a lush historical buffet but a lot to digest, and Signature Theatre's entry into the current Women's Voices Theater Festival could use a disciplined dramaturgical hand.
"4,380 Nights" also conjures Hanna Eady and Edward Mast's "The Return," a 75-minute two-character drama about an Israeli woman and an unjustly incarcerated Palestinian man. The man was played by Ahmad Kamal, who spends most of his time in chains as the apparently unjustly incarcerated figure in "4,380 Nights."
The compelling Kamal is more wry and bitter as fictional detainee Malik Essaid than he was in "The Return," though Essaid's interrogation by a liberal U.S. lawyer (Michael John Casey) working pro bono can be frustratingly slow. Even so, Dias is onto something: the ill-defined limbo of Guantanamo, where legal certitude goes to die, and the identity limbo of Essaid.
His background is Algerian and French. His recent movements have tracked from Paris to London to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The thuggish U.S. soldier (Rex Daugherty, delivering straight menace) trying to beat information out of Essaid is only too eager to connect the dots.
Dias channels some interesting procedural information into Essaid's dialogue with the lawyer, but sheer frustration too often gets the upper hand. The story time-shifts to 19th-century Algeria, where Kamal plays a local working for the French who gets tangled in a war crime.
Kathleen Akerley's simple staging in front of a grim curtain of dangling metal chains gives the script a clean hearing, but the drama is too overwritten and under-compressed to land powerfully. The other big wrinkle in this four-character play is an unnamed woman who is a poetic storyteller in the style of "Arabian Nights"; Lynette Rathnam brings a dancer's quality to her yarn-spinning, but the script doesn't weave these strands into the revelatory historical pattern Dias is after.
4,380 Nights, by Annalisa Dias. Directed by Kathleen Akerley. Set, Elizabeth Jenkins; costumes, Heather Lockard; lights, John Burkland; sound design, Neil McFadden. Through Feb. 18 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Shirlington. Tickets $40-$89. Call 703-820-9771 or visit sigtheatre.org.