Magical, lyrical, profoundly political, and ecstatically in love with the power of language, Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul is a fiery challenge to get through. Clocking in at just over three hours, the extraordinary play requires heart, intellect and stamina. But my, oh my. This lovely piece of writing and this amazing production offered by Main Street Theater give back so many lasting rewards to the tired audience once the house lights come up.
Written before September 11, 2001, Kushner's prescient story takes us from a middle-class British housewife's intimate library to the tragedy of modern-day Kabul, where the Taliban stalk the streets armed with rifles and religious rage.
In the first hour of the show, we become acquainted with the character known only as The Homebody. Bored, lonely and deeply intellectual, The Homebody lives life as a good English housewife "overwhelmed" by the mediocrity of her days. Her husband is "dull," and her grown daughter is a disappointment. So Homebody buries her refined nose in "outdated" guidebooks, where she learns about the turbulent, exotic history of Afghanistan.
During her hour-long monologue, we discover that she has a strange affinity for words that nobody else uses. She can employ "portmanteau," "pharmacologist," "ameliorate," "baleful" and "hoarfrost," all within a five-minute span of time. Self-effacing about her love of language, she's constantly apologizing for using words few people are likely to know. The Homebody admits to being anxious and depressed and to taking "powerful" anti-depressants or "talented salt," as she understands the medicine to be. She sees herself as "moth-like," "impassioned," "fluttery," "doomed." And for her, "the present is always an awful place to be."
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Interestingly enough, none of this is even remotely maudlin or sentimental. There is always a wry, charming self-effacement in this character, and Christianne Mays, the luminous actress who plays The Homebody, captures every ounce of graciousness and intellectual warmth written into her lines. Her glowing blue eyes radiate with desire, regret, disappointment. In her thin frame, Mays embodies the quiet hunger of a woman who believes in English privacy even as she longs for freedom. For this character, life resides in the impossible. "All must be touched," she says, even though "touch corrupts." Mays captures the pain of this paradox brilliantly; her performance is nothing short of mesmerizing.
The last two hours of the play take place in Kabul. During the blackout, The Homebody has traveled to Afghanistan, where she apparently has been murdered by fanatics. Here we meet Milton and Priscilla, The Homebody's husband and daughter, who have come to pick up the body. In the unfriendly landscape, the tiny British family is confronted with all sorts of uncomfortable truths, the first of which is the fact that there is no body. Milton (Kent Johnson) is happy to stay put in his Afghani hotel room, where he smokes opium with a British expat bearing the unlikely name of Quango Twistleton (Joel Sandel). Priscilla (Lee Matthews) decides to search for her mother and heads out into the difficult city to look for a body that doesn't seem to exist. Helping her is Khwaja Aziz Mondanabosh (Ahmad Hernandez), an Afghani who agrees to be her "uncle" for a fee, so that she can move about the city without worry. He leads her to Mahala (Rebecca Bivens), a woman who's been driven mad by the Taliban's ferocious rule over women. He suggests that The Homebody isn't really dead, that she has in fact decided to live in Afghanistan forever. All this confuses Priscilla, who is on a quest to find her estranged and very "private" mom. But it is in this confusion that Priscilla makes some very profound realizations about her mother and ultimately herself. Her explorations of Kabul eventually lead her to a better understanding of her own inner psychology.
None of this is as smoothly written as the opening monologue. But somehow, the cragginess of the writing fits the situation. This is a ferociously unpredictable world, full of desperate people who are willing to take desperate chances. And the cast, under Cheryl L. Kaplan's direction, does a terrific job. Pashto, Esperanto, Farsi, French and English are all stirred into a strange stew of words that get at the complexities of culture. Both the gaps and the commonalities are revealed in these performances. Bivens is especially powerful as an Afghani woman who wants freedom just as much as The Homebody does, though for her, freedom is defined in vastly different ways. Only Matthews, who frantically yells most of Priscilla's lines, feels out of place in this otherwise stunning cast.
This is not an easy story to tell, nor is it easy to hear. But fine art is rarely easy, and Kushner's play is rich with writing at its finest. The astounding story manages to chill the blood with tragedy even as it comforts. Kushner reminds us that art has the power to turn the violence of history into a fearsome thing of beauty.