Directed by Lou Contey
Starring Rom Barkhordar, Larry Grimm,
Shannon Parr and Emilio G. Robles
Presented by A Red Orchid Theatre
Playwright Howard Korder’s lyrical tragedy is a heartfelt play full of subtle revelations.
A Red Orchid’s Chicago premiere of In a Garden is the story of Hackett, an American architect summoned to the fictitious Middle Eastern country of Aquaat in 1989. There, he is commissioned by Othman, the country’s charismatic Minister of Culture to construct a summer house. Hackett, initially put off by the idea of designing a trite “gazebo,” eventually agrees. For Hackett is himself feeling professionally outpaced by his colleagues and believes his efforts in Aquaat may lead to more lucrative State Department contracts.
But over the course of their decade long relationship—the project itself marred by frequent stops and starts—Hackett comes to see more deeply the pervasive fear, insecurity and violence that underlies Othman’s otherwise self-assured character. “I could never be free from here,” Othman ominously tells Hackett in a frank confession. For Othman’s brother-in-law Najid, as Aquaat’s ruling genocidal autocrat, refuses to accept that anything is beyond his personal purview. Othman’s belongings are Najid’s belongings. Othman’s mistresses are Najid’s mistresses. And, yes, Othman’s summer house is Najid’s summer house.
Thus Hackett’s monument, which begins in the audience’s imagination as Othman’s project of shameless self-aggrandizement—born from the supposed hubris of an oppressive state regime—gradually over the course of the play becomes his escapist retreat, adorned with secreted pools of water and lush lemon groves. A place at once uncontaminated by the sins of history and free from the watchful eyes of the state.
Yet for all its topical geopolitical allusions, In a Garden actually works best when gesturing in the direction of romantic fable—those moments when the desert nation of Aquaat divorces itself from its historical antecedents, sliding into a highly stylized Orientalist fantasy. Not exactly the Middle East—rather, “the Middle East.” For the summer home Hackett is commissioned to build for Othman is an idealized Arcadia, enveloped by a prelapsarian innocence and without any history of its own. This poignantly charged symbolism imbues Korder’s play with a elegiac dramatic lyricism, more “poetic naturalism” than hard-edged realism.
By contrast, when In a Garden moves toward a veiled political allegory, it loses force. Whatever topical associations there are between Brother Najid and Saddam Hussein or between the mythical country of Aquaat and the nation-state of Iraq seem almost trivial, or at least secondary. Last minute attempts to invoke the spectral figures of George W. Bush and the 2003 occupation of Iraq feel belated and tangential here.
For the lessons In a Garden has to teach aren’t really historical or political—they’re personal and intimate. And the relationship Korder’s written between Hackett and Othman is compelling enough without trying to invoke a historical paradigm as cumbersome as the Iraq War. Over the course of their relationship, Othman slowly opens up to Hackett (the quintessential impartial Westerner) about his desire to escape into a secret hiding place and about the fears he has living in his own brother-in-law’s police state, and it’s over the prospect of building something beautiful and withdrawn in an otherwise corrupt and ravaged desert landscape that the two men find a subtle but potent emotional bond.
Although not exactly “friends” per se, Hackett and Othman nonetheless come together over a seemingly innocuous commercial exchange. Othman offers opportunity; Hackett, talent. And from the context of this highly formalized relationship, Hackett is forced to watch as Othman is ensnared in the machinations of Najid’s genocidal state. Unable to save Othman from the grips of Najid (or Aquaat from the grips of the U.S.), Hackett is always left standing on the outside, doomed to watch as an indifferent desert comes to swallow his monument once and for
Larry Grimm’s performance as Hackett is well-paced and measured, proceeding always with judicious caution even as his frustrations build. Rom Barkhordar as the multi-faceted Othman is superb, and his trajectory from self-possessed bureaucrat to hapless serf is played with immense empathy and proves often difficult to watch. Rounding out the cast is Emilio G. Robles as Najid, as likely to kill with a fatal word than with a sword, and Shannon Parr as the American soldier, Prudhomme.
In brief, Korder’s In a Garden is a sophisticated and frequently moving play on the oppressive nature of the state and our often quixotic efforts to be free from it. A lyrical tragedy in the guise of a social drama, theatergoers will be delighted at Korder’s ability to counter our expectations and to keep us on our toes.
Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Monday, April 8th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission.
In a Garden runs until May 19th, 2013. A Red Orchid Theater is located at 1531 N. Wells Ave., Chicago, IL 60610. Tickets are available at www.aredorchidtheatre.org or by calling the Red Orchid box office at (312) 943-8722. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/in-a-garden/5661/.