Humans are wired to ignore tragedy and death. Americans specifically, it seems, are able to spend the majority of their lives not thinking about the overseas violence in which our military is involved.
“The Corpse Washer,” part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, seeks perhaps to be something of an answer to this phenomenon, as it focuses in on would-be artist Jawad Kazim (Arash Mokhtar) and follows him for 28 years — through the Iraqi-Iranian conflict, two wars with America and the sectarian violence that followed.
Based on Sinan Antoon’s novel of the same name, this adaptation by Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace was commissioned specifically for the Human Fest.
If an audience member is unfamiliar with the term “corpse washer,” the play quickly explains the Islamic tradition of washing dead bodies in preparation for their burial. The play also wastes no time establishing the central theme of the play — death — and how the living handle loss.
Mokhtar plays Jawad across all 28 years of the play’s action, which is told in memory or flashback. Mokhtar’s skill at character creation is showcased by the many stops between his perky, inquisitive and somewhat frightened 12-year-old and his tired but determined 40-year-old.
Each age feels distinct, though Mokhtar also manages to begin each scene as the oldest version of himself, reliving each incident and age.
His memories are a swirl of close friends, family and loved ones. His brother Ammoury (Gus Cuddy), mother (Diana Simonzadeh), father (J. Paul Nicholas), his best friend Basim (Abraham Makany) and his love interest Reem (Mehry Eslaminia) get the most stage time, though a few other characters make appearances, many played by one of the above actors doing double duty.
Each does a credible job, but none of them are given much of an arc or a chance to grow or change. They have a habit of telling the audience what they are feeling or having their feelings explained via dialogue coming from Jawad. The sheer amount of telling rather than showing on stage is a little stunning, but it is indicative of the overall problem with this play — it seems as if it shouldn’t really be a play.
Stuffed full of action until it’s bursting at the seams, the frenetic pace established in the first minutes never stops. People from Jawad’s life are hustled onto the stage and off again.
A play about burial procedures in Iraq obviously is going to include a lot of death. Within the first few moments of the play, we hear about Jawad’s father’s grave, which clearly signals that yes, this play is going to be one death after another. This might not be a fatal flaw if we were ever actually given the time to care about anyone in Jawad’s life, and we aren’t given the time to care about Jawad’s hopes and dreams of being an artist either.
By the end of the play, when many of the people in Jawad’s life have died and he finally comes to the decision he must make and the dramatic crux of the play, the audience barely has any sense of why he would make the choice he does, or why they should care.
Americans of Middle Eastern descent need to be represented on stage. And the fact that Actors Theatre knows this and is willing to take steps to bring that representation to Louisville is laudable.
There is no doubt that the stories of people America has killed in Iraq need to be told. We have killed so many people in Iraq that we are literally unable to count them. The hotly contested estimations number the dead somewhere between 100,000 and 2 million. Their stories need to be told in a way that makes us feel those deaths on our shoulders, despite the human brain’s tendency to wrap that kind of horror in a thick shroud and bury it.
Perhaps the novel “The Corpse Washer” makes its readers understand that weight. Sadly, the play doesn’t.
“The Corpse Washer” continues as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays through April 7. Actors Theatre is located at 316 W. Main St.