“I think any progressive person has the ability to recognize problems in other parts of the world,” insists Jane (Dana Schultes), an American TV actress who’s impetuously joined her missionary fiancé Dave (Jake Buchanan) in his attempts to run a school/clinic for the impoverished families of a West African nation. Her statement, of course, reflects a toxic blend of good intentions and total obliviousness to the historical complexities of the post-colonial world. It also neatly explains the outrageous folly and cruelty on display in Bruce Norris’ unforgiving geopolitical satire The Unmentionables, which after this weekend will close its thrillingly performed, deeply discomfitting run at Stage West.
The script was written in 2006, partly as a response to the disastrous U.S. campaign for the “hearts and minds” of Iraqi citizens after Bush’s post-9/11 invasion. But The Unmentionables doesn’t rely solely, or even mostly, on outrage over Dubya’s pinheaded hubris –– the show’s concerns are as relevant now as they were then and will be at pretty much any point in our unfolding age of globalization. And thanks to director Rene Moreno’s crackerjack skill at weaving tricky moods and divergent themes into one forceful theatrical experience, ticketbuyers can laugh and squirm again at a familiar lesson humans never seem to learn: presuming too much about other people’s culture rarely results in a happy ending.
The less you know about The Unmentionables, the more potent are its twists of fortune and sympathy, so we’ll keep the plot summary short. After their West African missionary school is torched by angry locals, Jane (Schultes) and Dave (Buchanan) are given shelter by another pair of American expats, the fabulously wealthy and ever cheerful industrialist Don (Jim Covault) and his garrulous wife Nancy (Wendy Welch). Don has created his own factory town by employing a large chunk of the population, including a cynical pothead doctor (Brandon Burrell) who views most of the Americans with cheeky contempt. But Don has connections and, more importantly, armed protection, thanks to the unoffical “mayor” of this volatile region, an imperious local woman with the delightfully Orwellian name of Auntie Mimi (Natalie Wilson King). It turns out all four of the Americans believe their actions stem from unimpeachably golden motives –– shock! –– but their Western colonial benevolence gets muddied when Dave disappears one stormy night and a teen troublemaker named Etienne (Nicholas Holden) becomes a suspect.
There’s one direction that The Unmentionables, thanks to director Moreno, doesn’t take –– it doesn’t default into knee-jerk self-congratulation for white liberal theatergoers, who can cluck their tongues at the privilege of Anglo-American imperialists and then return to their own comfortable homes after the performance. Playwright Norris channels that giant of the English-speaking theater, George Bernard Shaw, in skillfully doling out measures of humanity and empathy to all of his characters, including the oppressors. The Unmentionables reminds me especially of Shaw’s 1905 Major Barbara for many reasons, most notably in how the ostensible villains are never depicted as unrecognizably monstrous and the victims have their own less-than-noble agendas.
Moreno’s masterful Stage West cast is given free rein to portray their characters with as many fragile, nonjudgmental emotional shades as they can muster. Considering the fraught dramatic scenarios that Norris constructs –– including an offstage torture session that has triggered many post-show conversations –– there wasn’t a false note struck by any of the performers at last Sunday’s matinee. (Though the cast turns in powerful work as an ensemble, it’s nice to watch Stage West co-honchos Jim Covault and Dana Schultes let a guest director take the helm so they can relax and dive deep into their characters. Both do some of their most memorable character work in years, especially Covault, who’s terrific as the dithery Don.)
The ultimate depressing lesson of The Unmentionables may be that the problem isn’t as simple as hypocrisy or self-deception. It’s possible to walk the walk of a genuinely altruistic religious or political philosophy and still fuck everything up if you don’t give The Other their due. I guess many of us think we know this, but as a species we apparently need constant reminders of it.
Thru Sun at Stage West, 821 W Vickery Blvd, FW. $28-32. 817-STG-WEST.