Theatre Seven offers a bold ‘In the Heart of America’

War is a bloody, ugly thing. It changes people, f*cks with their minds, turns nervous young boys into soulless killing machines. Yet, it can also bring people together in unexpected, life-changing ways. Naomi Wallace’s 1994 play, In the Heart of America, uses the Gulf and Vietnam wars as a jumping off point to explore these ideas.

Wallace blends historical accounts of the My Lai Massacre (I had to wiki it, too) with the fictional story of a Palestinian-American woman (Fawzia Mirza) on the hunt for her brother (Anthony DiNicola), who has gone missing while serving with US troops in the Gulf War. To find him, she enlists the help of a Kentucky-fed platoon-mate (Nick Vidal) who, it soon becomes obvious, was more than just a fellow soldier.

(Truth: I lifted that plot summary from press materials because I’m far too hungover from last night’s Honor Awards to effectively condense Wallace’s sprawling play.)

Now this is the story that drew me in — the search of a lost brother and the relationship between the two Gulf soldiers.

But then Wallace has to go and muck it up. I had difficulty making sense of her inclusion of events and characters from the Vietnam war, which exists in parallel in the play’s dreamlike (or, rather, nightmarelike) reality. Rather than elevate the action, it confounds things. Suddenly we’re watching a “Platoon” play alongside a “Not Without My Brother” play, which might be fine if she found an effective way to make the two worlds coexist. Instead, we have a pair of underwritten stories that compete with each other.

However, Theatre Seven of Chicago’s production is so strong, so well-realized, so compellingly acted and directed (by Brian Golden), it’s easy to overlook the play’s shortcomings.

Want to see some kick ass acting? Catch this play. Vidal was a standout in Red Twist’s That Face, and after seeing his work here, it’s clear he’s one of those actors who *lives* the role. Thrilling stuff. As his war buddy, DiNicola brings a sense of hopefulness and sensitivity, which magnifies the play’s darker inner workings. Mirza, whose character spends most of the play in search mode, does a great job breathing life into this underwritten role.

And special kudos to the design team of Lizzie Bracken (set) Claire Chrzan (lights), Jeff Kelley (sound) and Kyle Hamman (video). Together, they take us into a bombed out hotel room that morphs into the respective nightmares of the key players. Stunning work, guys.

“In the Heart of America” plays through April 1 at The Greenhouse Theater Center. More info here >

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