Sept. 20 2013 12:00 AM

MSU play explores the horror of war through those left behind


Ariel Dorman’s play “Widows” is not fun to watch. The subject matter is grim, many characters are underdeveloped and the run time is long. However the performances in the Michigan State University Department of Theatre production, directed by Ann Folino White, are gripping and powerful, giving nuance to the high drama of courage versus cowardice.

Master of Fine Arts student Jacqueline Wheeler leads the cast as Sofia Fuentes, the grieving matriarch of a small South American village. Hardened by the disappearance of her father, husband and sons during the recent military takeover of the country, Sofia sees a glimmer of closure when a faceless, mutilated corpse washes up on the riverbank. That bleak hope quickly turns into defiant rage when the local army officials refuse to hear her demands for justice.

Wheeler’s formidable portrayal of Sophia conjures an intelligent mother bear whose ferocity is unleashed when provoked. Wheeler grounds Sophia’s righteous dialogue with honest emotions that result in a rich and measured force reminiscent of “Mother Courage.”

But every hero needs a villain; Mack Hamilton excels as the strategizing and contemplative Captain. Hamilton commits to his character even when his character’s ethical dilemma prematurely resolves in the second act. Once the good cop/bad cop dynamic between the Captain and his lieutenant (played with steely gruff by Kirill Sheynerman) shifts to dual psychopaths, the script loses its teachable moment: that evil deeds are committed by real people, not demons. When the Captain becomes a caricature of evil, Sophia becomes a martyr and “Widows” becomes a prophetic myth instead of its intended universal cautionary tale.

Other better-than-the-script performances come from Zev Steinberg as a high-ranking officer who views the protesters as inconvenient vermin to tame. Also praiseworthy is Lydia Hiller as Sofia’s coming-of-age granddaughter.

Technical elements, such Matthew Imhoff’s lighting design and Kirk Domer’s scene design, which features a giant pool in the middle of the arena stage, work wonderfully to keep the action in constant motion while maximizing minimum stage space.

Once again, director Folino White demonstrates how to stage the darkest aspects of the human race without resorting to melodramatic flourishes. Sure there’s screaming and yelling and point blank executions, but every actor’s commitment to sincere expressions make these exaggerated scenes ring with morbid truth. Staged, indiscriminate barbarity is never fun to watch, but at least the entire cast and crew of MSU’s production make it worth your time.