by John Stoltenberg
Lately I’ve been thinking that there are two key questions that must be asked of every season-programming choice by every theater’s artistic director:
1) Why now?
2) So what?
There is no single right answer to those questions, of course, and there are several wrong ones. But if those two questions have no answer, or if merely raising them draws shrugs and blank stares…well, perhaps, given the times we now live in, there’s a problem of pertinence.
Recently Arena Stage has been doing pertinence with uncanny prescience. Artistic Director Molly Smith’s choice to mount Lisa Loomer’s Roe and Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine deserves a special Helen Hayes Award for Programming Clairvoyance—for who could have foreseen America’s current health and well-being emergency, which lent both productions such unsettling urgency?
Now comes the world premiere of a play with a shock of recognition that’s off the charts—Jacqueline E. Lawton’s penetrating Intelligence. Lawton, commissioned back in June 2015 to write for Arena’s auspicious Power Plays initiative, undertook “to process the betrayal I felt when the Bush Administration told a series of lies that led to the war in Iraq.” Little could Lawton have known how many lies lay ahead.
Intelligence is a compressed and fictionalized version of the so-called Valerie Plame affair, the 2003 scandal recounted in the 2010 movie Fair Game, which in turn was based on memoirs by covert CIA operations officer Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. The subtitles of their books give the gist of the disgraceful episode: Plame’s Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House and Wilson’s The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity.
Lawton spotlights the character of Valerie Plame, in a dazzling performance by Hannah Yelland that’s translucent with truth. Remarkably, this sprawling drama of international intrigue and governmental malfeasance is told in a mere 90 minutes with but four other characters onstage: Valerie’s husband Joseph (Lawrence Redmond); her supervisor at the CIA, Elaine (Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman); Leyla, a Georgetown fashion designer (Nora Achrati); and Leyla’s beloved uncle in the Middle East, Dr. Malik Nazari (Ethan Nova), who like Leyla is under CIA surveillance.
This concision has the effect of making Valerie’s conscience the real focal point of the play. The character has love and concern for her husband and young children, as would be expected. But the singularity of her steely conscience as crafted by Lawton is neither a woman’s nor a man’s. It is a citizen’s. It is a patriot’s. It is the uncompromising morals of someone who expects better of her country. And I loved that Lawton did that.
Daniella Topol directs this intime exposé against a backdrop of stagecraft to knock your socks off. Set Designer Misha Kachman sets the stage with great gray columnar slabs that could be contemporary steles or an homage to the Twin Towers. They move about, creating playing spaces into which furniture is set for close-up scenes, but their grander purpose is to serve as vast surfaces on which Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi shows chilling footage of Bush, Cheney, Powell et al. lying the nation into war.
Somehow, perversely, Bush and Co.’s untruths told then about uranium buys and WMDs seem almost like good old days: a time when presidential prevarication could be isolated, sequestered, found in a few fateful phrases here and there, not a never-ending inundation, a logorrhea of lies.
Intelligence is a conscience-centered thriller set against a national tragedy on an epic scale. That this tragedy is ongoing and worsening only makes this sensational show more essential to see. Its “why now?” and its “so what?” are what great theater is about.