You are ordered to shoot civilians who are trembling before you, and told that if you refuse you will join them. That is the moral and psychological dilemma presented by A Patch of Earth, by Kitty Felde. Staged by Roger Williams University Theatre through April 30, it is directed by Robin Stone.
The play is based on the case of Dražen Erdemović, a Bosnian Croat who admitted taking part in a 1995 massacre of some 1200 Muslim men and boys outside Srebrenica. The playwright states in the program notes that the presented facts of the case, apart from the personal interactions, are true. Feeling guilty about his participation, and despite being shot months later by a fellow ex-soldier concerned that he would reveal their secret, in 1996 Erdemovic went public in an ABC News interview about what had happened. Subsequently, he was tried and convicted at a war crimes tribunal in the Hague. The play shifts back and forth between the trial and his recollections.
The stage and background consist of raw wooden planks, some with jagged ends or bullet or shrapnel holes, in the scenic design by Dorisa Boggs. In one shocking moment of silence, Projection designer Danya Martin shows blurry footage of bound men being shot, apparently evidence from the tribunal, while people are being interviewed on stage.
Erdemovic is played with skill by Peter Arsenault, who has the unenviable task of displaying various degrees of anguish in most scenes. That emotional intensity hinders rather than helps the story, less because of compassion fatigue on our part than because a dramatic tone that begins so high-pitched has nowhere to build. Correspondingly, the play becomes a melodrama. "Can you see the blood on my hands?" he shrieks to his wife. Hallucinating shrouded victims of his bullets is effective, but by the time he cradles his baby boy and imagines him saying "Papa monster," the point is belabored. (We had already been jerked out of empathetic realism by the "baby" being a floppy, oversized dummy.)
When we are then asked to believe that his wife insists his description of the massacre is from his dreams rather than memory, it's hard to continue trusting this play. Marital disaffection is one thing, but accusing a confession of being a fantasy is quite another.
Erdemovic's Serbian wife, Vesna (Mary Dillon), is constantly complaining about deprivations. She wants him to continue smuggling people across the border for money even after there's a crackdown. At one point, to no particular purpose, she asks: "You're a Croat, I'm a Serb — who is our son supposed to hate?" Erdemovic's father (Jordan Estabrooks) doesn't understand him either, having lived in the more comfortable days of Tito and an unpartitioned Yugoslavia.
There are a couple of sympathetic people he can talk to, and both the actors provide convincingly sympathetic solace. His Dutch prison guard, Elsbeth Van Der Kellen (Rebecca Murphy), is especially interested in him because her brother was a UN soldier assigned to Srebrenica who always refused to speak about what he saw there. Julija (Lindsey St. Louis) is an old girlfriend and now owns a tavern, a good place to talk with a good person to confide in.