The Language of Trees @ Black Box Theatre, New York

cast list
Maggie Burke
Natalie Gold
Michael Hayden
Gio Perez
Michael Warner

directed by
Alex Timbers

What times are these when a talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence on so many wrongs?

Steven Levenson’s new play draws its name from Bertolt Brecht’s famous quotation. The play opens on the morning of Denton Pinkerstone’s depature. A 30-something translator hired by the US Government to translate for coalition troops in Iraq, Denton is no soldier; rather, he is an affable, nerdy family-man who expects his six-month stint in Iraq to pass by smoothy.

His wife, Loretta Trumble-Pinkerston, is uneasy about his employ from the beginning: she begs him to stay. Rounding out the family is Eben Trumble-Pinkerston, a gifted but anti-social child who wiles his afternoons digging for arrowheads, reading up on elementary botany and reciting esoteric presidential trivia, a habit he picked up from his father.

The play is more concerned with Loretta and Eben than Denton – on the impact the troubled circumstances have on the family. Shortly after Dentons departure, Loretta, who was recently let go from her job for behavioural reasons, is visited in her home by Kay Danley, a middle-aged neighbour.

Loretta and Kay had never met prior to Kays first, unscheduled visit. Kay, having heard about Denton’s deployment, brings a gift basket to the family as both a consolation and a thank you, in honour of Denton’s service. Loretta is at first indignant over Kay’s presumption; she insists that Denton is a translator and not a soldier, repeating this to herself like a prayer, as though Denton’s civilian status constitutes an invulnerability the soldiers do not enjoy. Loretta lets down her guard in the face of Kay’s apparent sincerity, and the two strike up a tepid friendship, a friendship constantly allayed by Loretta’s nerves and Kay’s nosiness.

The domestic narrative is punctuated by occasional letters home from Denton, whose situation quickly worsens. First, he complains only of the heat; soon, he is participating in morally dubious night raids; finally, he is kidnapped and imprisoned by insurgents.

News of his abduction reaches the family, and Loretta begins to unravel, taking her anger and confusion out on Kay. An importune criticism by Kay that Eben ought to play more with other children draws hellfire from Loretta, who, in her distress, interprets that comment as a slight on her parenting. Meanwhile, Eben is lost in a world of his imagining. His father has promised him that on his return the two of them will decipher the language of the trees, a dizzyingly exciting prospect to Eben. Until then, the family must learn to communicate again with itself now that their translator is gone.

The set is divided into three. The centre stage, the Trumle-Pinkerstones’ kitchen, hosts most of the action. The right stage serves as a proxy for all of Iraq, from the desert at day to a prison cell at night. A park near the Trumle-Pinkerstone home occupies the left stage. The triptych staging highlights the separation the family feels Denton stuck in Iraq, Loretta stuck in her kitchen, and Eben desperately trying to draw the trees out of their silence.

Natalie Gold and Maggie Burke and Loretta Trumble-Pinkerstone and Kay Danley are the stand-out performances of this production. The direr Loretta’s circumstances, the more challenging the role, and the more effortlessly Natalie Gold embodies the character. Her languid smoking and exasperated tone set the tone for the rest of the characters: her despair is the cornerstone on which the play rests. Maggie Burke as Kay Danley is seamless and invisible. She is the neighbour we all have, and the aunt we dread seeing at Christmas unbecomingly critical, a little too pushy, but sincere and vulnerable in spite of her faults.

Eben, played by Michael Hayden, an adult actor, struck a sour note for me. His contrived affect the childish insolence of his speech and swagger was wholly unconvincing. I never lost myself to the illusion of his character, never thought I was watching a child. Instead, I was constantly aware of the actors efforts to embody a child; thus, Eben struck me as a sociopathic manchild, an emotionally constipated Pee-Wee Herman.

The play suffers from a pointless scenario, the hallucinatory visitation of Bill Clinton in an Iraqi prison cell. Imprisoned by insurgents, Denton quickly begins to lose his wits, culminating in an imagined visit from former US President Bill Clinton. Not only is the fantasy inconsistent with the tone of the play, the vision of Bill Clinton presented within is inconsistent with the public persona of the man himself. The Bill Clinton we are presented with is a back-slapping, smooth-talking politician more in-sync with George W Bush’s image than with Clintons. The imagined affair carries on pointlessly until being dispelled by Clinton, who announces himself as the effect of rising CO2 levels on Dentons brain.

Despite its faults, the play is a powerful reminder that war is as much a domestic issue as it is a national one, a humanizing fact one should keep in mind during inhuman times.

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