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Nashville Scene Cell Division

The face of terrorism

By Lisa A. DuBois

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  Terrorism is easy to handle in the abstract. Government agents strategize. Journalists philosophize. Average Americans shake their heads and ask, "What's the world coming to?" as they pour themselves another bowl of Cheerios.

That might be sufficient if real people weren't victims and real families weren't shattered in the process. This is precisely the dilemma posed by playwright Lee Blessing in Two Rooms, presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble this weekend and next at St. Augustine's Chapel on the Vanderbilt campus. Blessing distills the global concept of terrorism down to a painful personal level, describing how a sudden, inexplicable act haunts the lives of four Americans.

Michael Wells is an American professor at a university in Beirut. When the play opens, he has been kidnapped, tortured, and imprisoned by a band of young radicals who for the past year have roamed the streets of the city targeting foreigners to take hostage. Blindfolded, handcuffed, and kept in total isolation, Michael composes mental letters to Lainie, his wife back home. In his ramblings, he tries to make sense of his captors' fury, their willingness to kill and be killed for the parched patch of ground they stand on--the same ground their ancestors have fought and died over for thousands of years.

Lainie, on the other hand, cares little about the ideological explanations for her predicament. She only wants her husband to be set free and brought home alive. A trained naturalist, she has been thrust into the most unnatural of situations; at every turn, she bumps up against governmental policy and procedure--slow, laborious negotiations that go nowhere.

In protest, she empties a room in her home and spends her days in self-imposed solitary confinement, mirroring her husband's plight. Lainie's silent rebellion becomes a major problem for governmental agent Ellen Van Oss, and it becomes a compelling news story for reporter Walker Harris. Sympathetic to Lainie's frustration, Ellen and Walker both try to make political sense of the situation, to impose some systematic structure on her personal crisis.

"The press and the government see this little room she creates as a hot issue, a good story, and it points up to everyone their ineffectiveness," says director Bill Feehely. "It's a very simple symbolic gesture, and it shows how powerful symbols can be."

Now in its third season, Actors Bridge was founded by acting coach Feehely to provide a forum where local actors, many of them his current and former students, could present complex, challenging works of theater that touch on compelling social issues. Feehely and songwriter Marcus Hummon were recently awarded a Metro Nashville Arts Commission grant to create a new musical, American Duet, which will debut in workshop form in early 1999. In Two Rooms, Feehely has cast veterans Jeremy Childs as Michael, Jenny Littleton as Lainie, Peg Allen as the government agent Ellen, and Jeff Schmidt as the reporter Walker.

"The measure of success for this play," Feehely says, "will be if each character connects with the other's sense of devotion. This play is about the devotion of a couple in marriage, about devotion to a country and its policies, and about devotion to a job and to the rights of the First Amendment. If we keep our focus on that, we'll present a well-balanced production."

Ironically, the kidnappers' utter lack of personal devotion fuels their passion. Several of them, Michael realizes, were students of his at the university. These hostage-takers are simply young kids with big guns searching for big thrills.

"We talk about global politics, how all this affects the balance of power," Michael says in one of his "letters" to Lainie. "Do you know what a 20-year-old Shi'ite thinks of the balance of power?"

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