The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center towers left an indelible imprint — not only on New York City’s skyline but also on Tony Kushner’s play “Homebody/Kabul.”
Written only months before Sept. 11, 2001, by the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright of “Angels in America,” the play contains a disturbingly prophetic moment when an educated Afghan woman suffering under the Taliban’s regime yells at Westerners: “You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York! Well, don’t worry, they’re coming to New York!”
Though “Homebody/Kabul” still is inseparable from thoughts of Sept. 11, 2001, its current Midwest premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre is distant enough from the time of the attacks to allow a re-evaluation of the play and a discussion of the text on its own terms.
The complex themes and ideas of Kushner’s play are well serviced by the direction of Frank Galati, a Steppenwolf ensemble member and Northwestern performance studies professor. Superb acting, inventive design and Galati’s staging effectively communicate the play’s skepticism of the very possibility of communication.
The play, which runs longer than three hours, opens with a lengthy monologue by an eccentric intellectual British woman named the Homebody (Amy Morton), who is fascinated by Afghanistan’s cultural and political history. As she addresses the audience, her thoughts jump between the Afghan capital, Kabul and her husband — revealing a tension and ultimately a relationship between the political and the personal. Conveying both the extreme comfort and isolation of the West, Galati stages the Homebody’s entire monologue in a cozy but solitary chair surrounded by books.
The Homebody’s departure for Afghanistan then prompts one of the play’s most dynamic moments as the stage is transformed before our eyes into the war-torn city of Kabul. There she disappears and viewers spend the rest of the play with her husband, Milton (Reed Birney), and daughter, Priscilla (Elizabeth Ledo), as they search for her.
The play’s theme of communication becomes more pronounced in Kabul. Kushner addresses the complexities of communication and understanding between East and West on a large level, but the skillful actors allow the theme to resonate on a personal level as well — particularly in the relationship between Priscilla and her estranged father.
“The play is about language and how language barriers and communication barriers create barriers between cultures,” said Chris Yonan, a Communication junior who plays an extra in the production. “Most of the play is spent trying to communicate.”
As Yonan noted, despite the characters’ efforts to communicate, they find it difficult to succeed. One of the play’s most interesting characters, Khwaja (Firdous Bamji), is an Afghan poet who writes in Esperanto, the once–proposed universal language. Idealistically hoping to write in a language that can be understood by everyone, Khwaja, ironically, finds almost no one can understand his poetry.
More optimistic is the relationship between Milton and Mahala (Diana Simonzadeh), a Muslim woman and former librarian. Milton suggests that science is a language. He works in networking, which consists of joining opposites that are also alike — an effective metaphor for communication between cultures. Mahala’s view that the Dewey Decimal system is the only truly universal language, on the other hand, suggests education is the tool to advance world understanding.
In the end, “Homebody/Kabul” provides no definite answers, only questions and possibilities. However, Steppenwolf’s production, which runs through Aug. 31, will prompt a discussion of the play in a language not limited to that of Sept. 11.