PLAY OR POLEMIC?: Zinn's drama smacks of a political discussion dressed up in domestic clothing.
Long before the concept that men are from Mars and women are from Venus entered the pop-psychological lexicon, historian, activist, and A People's History of the United States scribe Howard Zinn penned his play Daughter of Venus, a revised version of which is in its Boston premiere by Suffolk University and Boston Playwrights' Theatre (at BPT through February 8). At heart an In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer–esque consideration of whether the good fight against weapon-proliferating governments is best fought by whistle-blowing protest or insider sabotage, the play is framed as a family conflict. The progenitors of the quarrel are biophysicist Paolo, who is undergoing an ethical crisis spurred by an invitation to act as scientific Cassandra on a biochemical-weapon-development project, and his wife, Lucy, an anti-nuke activist who has recently attempted suicide. According to Paolo, our warmongering earth weighed heavily on Lucy, who longed "to live on a more hospitable planet." But forget about the male-female thing. Taking up the fight for her hospitalized mom is fierce twentysomething daughter Aramintha, who comes into the ring bearing a heavy mantle of political idealism and filial resentment but whose argumentative skills are drawn more from Mars than from Venus.
A quarter-century ago, Daughter of Venus was about how best to stop the nuclear-arms race. In the wake of the Cold War, Zinn has tweaked it to encompass the War on Terror, the free pass that war seems to have given our government to come up with ever more deadly means to fight it, and the best way for impassioned liberals to combat the powers that be (represented now as then by a sinister if avuncular representative of the Rand Corporation).
As it probably did when it premiered at New York's Theatre for the New City in 1985, Zinn's drama smacks of a political discussion dressed up in domestic clothing. Moreover, the outfit's pretty flamboyant, accessorized as it is not just by the sudden second-act appearance of a gun but also by a mentally challenged manchild, Paolo and Lucy's son Jamie, whose disability may be tied to radiation exposure from the project on which his father made his name. The estranged Paolo and Aramintha are, it's clear, at odds over more than whether he should take the job with the government, and the tenderness between Paolo and Lucy has been poisoned by disagreement over how best to protect family and accomplish political ends. But these considerable complications all take a back seat to the political debate, which seems to cheat them. And the folding of gentle, retarded, obsessive Jamie into the family dynamic does not always ring true.
Still, director Wesley Savick imposes on Zinn's podium a melancholic, dreamlike structure that makes it seem more at home on stage. The play moves between immediate, present reality and more fractured flashback. And on Jon Savage's abstract set, where empty picture frames float over what looks more like a metal-roped boxing ring than a NYC parlor, past and present are allowed to intrude on each other, with the absent Lucy a hovering, flickering influence, her piano improvisations an emotional, atmospheric glue beneath the heated conversations.