Playwright Heather Raffo is part Iraqi. Her father emigrated to the U.S. and married an American. Raffo said in a discussion after the show that she had a normal American upbringing. She knows her father's relatives but had not seen them in many years when she decided to go back and try to get a deeper, more personal connection to that part of her heritage. It sounds like a prelude to a documentary, and in a way it is, but this documentary is dreamlike, cascading between facts and feelings, observance and the unconscious. Occasionally, it is difficult to follow.
The set at Loyola (by Geoffrey Hall) was simple. A small octagonal well was surrounded by a mosaic floor and walls damaged by bomb blasts. The well might be said to symbolize the continuity of an ancient culture and also the sustaining role of women in that culture. The only other significant objects were shoes of various sorts on the well and an artist's easel off to one side.
When Raffo went back to Iraq to do her research, one of the things that caught her eye was a painting in an art museum in Baghdad, which otherwise featured billboard-size portraits of Saddam Hussein. The painting showed a nude woman hugging a slim tree. The artist was a woman who had died in an American bombing raid. A fictionalized incarnation of this artist, Layal (Constance Anna), is a central character in Desire.
When the play begins, the stage fills with Iraqi women dressed in robes and headscarves. They bow when called to prayer by the voice of a muezzin. A romantic East-of-Suez aura might set in, but that exotic exploration is soured for us amidst the daily news of death and destruction.
Raffo sets a bold, poetic tone with the first speaker, Mullaya (Adrienne Burns), who is described in the playbill as a professional mourner. 'Early in the morning, I come to throw dead shoes into the river," she says. These shoes as well as the black robes are woven throughout the play, creating dreamlike connections between disparate situations.
Gradually, we get to know nine women. Their personalities and life stories vary considerably. A Bedouin woman named Amal (Yakitha Egana) hopes to find romantic happiness as the wife of a man from her tribe, but disappointment follows disappointment as she follows various husbands to London and Palestine. In London, we meet an exile, Huda (Cynthia Davila), who has a cool, cynical take on things. Exile for her means drinking Scotch and wearing tailored, western clothing. As far as she's concerned, the war is necessary. Iraqis, in fact, deserved the invasion for not getting rid of Saddam themselves, she says.
A doctor (Andy Cervantes) runs onstage in a blood-stained lab coat and vomits just out of sight. She talks about the devastating effects of the war on the environment and therefore on children. In particular, she agonizes over the vast quantity of irradiated bullets and shells. Birth defects are rampant. She is now seeing newborns with two heads and other grotesque abnormalities. How long will it take for the danger to pass? Thousands of years.
Laura Hope directed this demanding mosaic of monologues and elicited convincing performances from the student cast. The situation is extreme and the climax is intense, although I found its hysteria to be a bit much. The strength of the play is not so much its political implications but its free-flowing, forceful portrait of ordinary people in a country we have invaded. Raffo, who is an actress, has performed the play as a one-woman show. This was the first time she saw it with a full cast. The Loyola Theater Department did a commendable job, but it also would be interesting to hear Raffo tell the story in her own voice.