Middle East Craziness Strikes Again, Belatedly

The delayed, and most welcome, production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, now at the Minetta Lane Theatre, strikes me

The delayed, and most welcome, production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, now at the Minetta Lane Theatre, strikes me as a singular act of love and honor in a world that has lost its reason.

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There are two stories to tell here. One is about Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death, age 23, by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza as she was trying to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home. She was a pro-Palestinian activist who believed quixotically in nonviolence.

The other story is about a 90-minute one-woman play created from Rachel Corrie’s letters, journals and e-mails, and edited by its director, the well-known actor Alan Rickman, and a leading British journalist, Katharine Viner. The play premiered in April 2005 at the Royal Court Theatre in London—without protest or incident—and went on to be staged successfully in the West End.

It was due to arrive in March, at the nonprofit New York Theatre Workshop—but the production was “postponed.” This usually excellent theater company, mirroring the world, had lost its reason, too: It caved in cravenly to unspecified outside pressure. (There are pro-Israelis who vilify Rachel Corrie and oppose the very idea that her story should be told.) Since then, the Theatre Workshop has changed its story so many times that it ought to rename itself “Dissemble, Spin and Run.”

I wrote back in February that we look to our theater to be our independent forum, our pulpit, our truth-teller and witness. Plays written in blood like My Name Is Rachel Corrie are not meant to be “acceptable” or reach “consensus.” That is for weaselly politicians. Nor should our theaters be “balanced” like a boring op-ed page. For heaven’s sake, I pleaded, give us plays of passion and consequence—not caution, compliance and fear.

After the Theatre Workshop debacle, not a single major nonprofit theater in the city offered to stage My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The production at the Minetta Lane Theatre downtown is backed by James Hammerstein Productions, a commercial outfit. When the compromised commercial theater is prepared to take bigger risks than our nonprofits, we’ve got trouble.

After all the uproar and bitter controversy that preceded its arrival here, My Name Is Rachel Corrie turns out to be a poignant, modest and humane play about a young American idealist who was trying desperately to make a difference. It’s about an unstoppable young woman’s search for “bigness”—implying a desire and concern that transcends the unbearable lightness of being. She rejects the small, safe, domesticated life for a life that’s held in fragile balance.

The most unexpected and rewarding discovery of the play is that Corrie, a political idealist since she was in fifth grade in Olympia, Wash., was a fine poet in the making.

“It was the same day I decided to be an artist and a writer and I didn’t give a shit if I was mediocre,” she declares melodramatically of a turning point, “and I didn’t give a shit if my whole damn high school turned and pointed and laughed in my face …. I was finally awake, forever and ever.”

She can be sardonic: “‘Fun life,’ I say. ‘Fun life.’ I imagine I live in a Mountain Dew commercial.” She’s precociously earnest: “I guess I’ve grown up a little,” she wrote, age 12. “It’s all relative anyway.” Mercifully, she becomes a normal, sexually hung-up teenager who’s mad about the music of Pat Benatar and does her best not to fall in love “with someone who is perpetually leaving you.” She will grow prosaic and alarming in an alien world. “Sleep in tent. Gunshot through tent. Start smoking.” But it’s the natural poetry within her fated life that grabs us most.

“Had a dream about falling,” goes her terrible premonition, “falling to my death off something dusty and smooth and crumbling like the cliffs in Utah. But I kept holding on, and when each new foothold or handle of rock broke, I reached out as I fell and grabbed a new one. I didn’t have time to think about anything—just react as if I was playing an adrenaline-filled video game. And I heard, ‘I can’t die, I can’t die,’ again and again in my head.”

Megan Dodds, the American actress, plays Rachel Corrie (Ms. Dodds originated the role in London), and her committed performance takes sustained flight when Corrie arrives in Jerusalem and the hell of Gaza. Mr. Rickman has encouraged her to play the early domestic scenes a shade too giddily young in her bobbing ponytail. (I was uncertain what age she was meant to be.) The deliberate, near-mundane image of Corrie’s boinky ordinariness humanizes her, bringing her down to earth from the shaky plateau of martyred saint or demonized symbol of war. But was she ever cute? My hunch is that she was always closer to her own unflinching, unsentimental description of herself as “scattered and deviant and too loud.”

During the central scenes in Gaza, Ms. Dodds gains stature and depth, taking us closer into the heart of darkness. The spare, evocative set by Hildegard Bechtler suggesting a bullet-riddled wasteland with plastic chairs and a TV set is exactly right. Corrie looks in astonishment and outrage at “the constant presence of death” all around her. She rescues a dead man on a stretcher as warning shots are fired in front of her from the Israeli army. She pleads in despairing letters to her concerned, fair-minded mother for the justice of the Palestinian cause.

“A lot of the time the kindness of the people here, coupled with the willful destruction of their lives, makes it seem unreal to me. I can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry. It hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be.”

As Corrie’s involvement in the Palestinian cause grew, she hoped her “international white person privilege” might somehow protect her. The achievement of the play is to present its young heroine as a vulnerable, flawed, idealistic human being. The tragedy that affects us so much is her growing disillusion in the chaos and the absolute inevitability of her death.

Toward her self-prophesied end, Rachel Corrie the born idealist was losing faith. The baseness of the impoverished, violent life she witnessed proved too much for her to bear.

“Anyway I’m rambling,” she writes home, exhausted. “Just want to tell my mom that I’m really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature.”

Then she pleads helplessly, “This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop …. This is not the world you and Dad wanted me to come into when you decided to have me. This is not what I meant when I looked at Capitol Lake and said, ‘This is the wide world and I’m coming to it.’”

On the Web, someone has written about Rachel Corrie: “Can they dig her up and kill her again please?” To others, she is a hero. It’s enough for us that My Name Is Rachel Corrie is the saddening story of a young woman who was killed trying to stop an unending war in the wide, abysmal world.

Middle East Craziness  Strikes Again, Belatedly