GHOST STORIES: Poetry trumps politics in Naomi Wallace’s three vignettes.
In The Fever Chart — Three Visions of the Middle East, Naomi Wallace does not so much take the temperature of that splintered region as invade its dreams. The triptych, in an impressive area premiere by Underground Railway Theater (at Central Square Theater through December 19), comprises three curiously compelling, subtly connected vignettes in which poetry trumps politics and grief becomes a connective tissue. Suggested by actual events but far from realistic (except in the magical sense), the two encounters and one monologue conjoined by the play are ghost stories of a sort, whether the ghosts are characters, lost loved ones, or an eradicated culture. Make no mistake: Wallace has an agenda, one that is pro-Arab and anti-US, with Israel in the middle of her chart. Yet agitprop is but a whisper beneath the wings of these three Fever dreams.
Vision One: A State of Innocence is set in 2002 at the small zoo in Gaza that would two years later find itself in the way of Israeli tanks. Here the destruction of the Rafah zoo seems already to have taken place, along with other unhappy events that inform the play's cryptic encounter between a young Israeli soldier patrolling the place and the Palestinian woman he reprimands for keening next to what used to be a pool. Also skittering on and off is a 96-year-old Russian-Israeli architect whose incessant building, the Palestinian woman mourns, will "eat our future." But it is the exchange between the soldier and the woman, who has lost a child to Israeli gunfire, that leads to what proves a humane and haunting denouement.
In Vision Two: Between This Breath and You, a grieving Palestinian father enters a West Jerusalem clinic after hours and insists on speaking to an Israeli nurse's aid. Once again, there is a more whimsically drawn third character, an Israeli janitor of Moroccan descent whose benign derangement extends to seeing both Mankind and the Divine in his mop. Just as the Palestinian woman of the first vision claimed to have something belonging to the soldier's mother, the Palestinian father here asserts that the Israeli nurse has something belonging to him. It takes a long, elliptical back-and-forth to get around to what that is. Again, a connection deeper than nationality is asserted.
Ali, the gentle, intellectual speaker of Vision Three: The Retreating World, which is set in 2000, is an Iraqi bird fancier and veteran of the first Gulf War who has lived through the decade-long US embargo of his country — a dangerous time for pigeons, who "can be caught and eaten." Or, in the case of Ali's prized birds, sold to the hungry — though not before the speaker had first sold his volumes of Shakespeare. His pigeons, Ali jokingly recalls, were Christian, Jewish, and Muslim but all got along. One was named for his closest friend, with whom Ali was conscripted into Saddam's army. He tells a shocking tale of their side-by-side surrender to American forces. But mostly he eulogizes a culture strangled by the embargo. "Everything we say these days begins, 'I remember,' " he sighs. Yet in the striking visual image that ends the play, the bones of dead beings are mysteriously transmogrified into something hopeful.