Photo by Sharon Kinsella
In Richard Squires’ play A Blanket of Dust, presented at The Flea Theater by Delphi Film in association with Alfonso Ramos and Eve Pomerance, a woman, Diane, looses her husband in the 9-11 disaster. She’s convinced that the government is responsible for the catastrophe, and campaigns to uncover the conspiracy. She’s a Senator’s daughter, so the issue becomes a family affair. Years later, she becomes involved with Andrew, a book store owner active in the dissident movement. Andrew is also at odds with his parents on political issues (his father is in government but it’s not clear what his position is.) In frustration, Andrew commits suicide - he sets fire to himself - in protest. This is all pretty grim, but, well, it’s a grim world, and it’s good to see issue- committed theater.
Mr. Squires’ keeps his script as lean as the WTC towers. The characters have no identity aside from their attitudes toward the issue, aside from the sketchy romance. There’s no particularization. We never learn things about them like what color wallpaper they like or where they went to school. Unfortunately, this style makes the play less a drama than a mere argument. When Andrew takes Diane to meet his folks, they start arguing immediately. Mr. Squires doesn’t even give a nod to conventional social interaction. I don’t believe this quality is an error; Mr. Squires is too good a playwright to make that sort of error. It’s a choice.
The director, Christopher Murrah, has picked up on the polemic and directed his actors to YELL in nearly every scene, although the lines could well be delivered otherwise. And throughout the scene as well, so that it has no structure. We soon grow tired of this - worse, annoyed. The effective moments in the play are quiet, such as when Diane addresses her father quietly, for once: “If you weren’t such cowards it would never have come to this,” she says. And there’s moving silent moment just before Andrew kills himself when it’s snowing gently.
Of course, George Bernard Shaw’s characters also represent attitudes toward the issues in his plays, but his characters discuss the issues before the playwright forms a conclusion for us. Mr. Squires’ characters do not discuss. There’s never any question what side the play is on: 9-11 was masterminded by the American officials. As Noam Chomsky has said “A large part of the population is willing to accept the possibility we’re run by a bunch of homicidal maniacs who are trying to murder us all.” Now, that may be true - I don’t know - but the production isn’t going to convince us by yelling. Theater can do better than that.
It’s unfortunate that Mr. Squires has let his political position distort his playwrighting, because he can be insightful and articulate. When Andrew says to his mother “They care about the truth,” she replies “Not when it affects their feelings.” This exchange is worthy of Shaw.
Brendan Boston’s set, as well, is stripped to the minimum: six white chairs. At least the production is all of a piece, spare and harsh.
Angela Pierce does the best she can as Diana, given the heavy-handed direction. Tommy Schrider is more fleshed out as Andrew, whose own father calls him a faggot (the theme is never developed). The most interesting performance comes from Alison Fraser as Diane’s mother, the Senator’s wife. She’s utterly affected, with a false, overly flowery melody to her voice, but Ms. Fraser makes it clear that it’s the character who’s affected, not the actress.
One of the functions of theater is to explore issues. But we need political theater that presents all sides of these issues and lets us form our own conclusions. That’s the only way it’ll persuade us of anything. In A Blanket of Dust, Mr. Squires wants to lead us. But if we let a playwright lead us to a position, another playwright will lead us back a week later.