“Heads” takes poignant look at wartime imprisonment


Warzones and prisons may be Americans’ favorite places. In the popular imagination, both represent Hobbesian settings where life is “nasty, brutish and short” as characters blur pre-existing lines of social class in the immediacy of their fight for survival.

E.M. Lewis’ “Heads,” directed by John Shepard and running at the Pittsburgh Playhouse through Feb. 16, uses these two compelling settings to create a play that combines the chaos of war with the isolation of imprisonment. In the play, four Westerners — three Americans and one Brit — find themselves kidnapped by terrorists in Iraq in March 2004, a year after the U.S.-led invasion.

While the play is a drama about people who find themselves stuck together, Lewis and Shepard also try to show the injustice and frivolity of events in wartime.

Before the lights come on, we hear a recording of President George W. Bush’s later-derided “Mission Accomplished” speech in all its irony, and later in the play, young Iraqi children appear in a video projected above the stage.

While these aspects are intended to remind us of the failure of the war’s ostensible goals and the devastation it inflicted on Iraqi society, Lewis never fully develops these arguments. Instead, each of the characters — all civilians — see themselves as victims of circumstance who were only in a warzone to do their jobs. 

Instead of trying to answer the question of who carries ultimate responsibility for the kidnappings — Bush, the captives or the terrorists — the play makes no arguments about the war and instead portrays its fundamental injustices.

The action takes place on two small, adjacent stages that simulate two separate, grimy cells with bare lightbulbs hung over the actors. The occupants of each cell can’t communicate with those in the other, even as they begin to suspect there are other captives.

In one cell, Harold Wolfe (James FitzGerald), an American engineer who has adapted to captivity after seven months, must now adjust to a new cellmate, Caroline Conway (Diana Ifft), who is a spokeswoman for the British embassy.

Wolfe encourages Conway to forget her old life and simply adapt. Instead, Conway clings to memories from the world outside, talking incessantly about how much she wants a cigarette and singing, then later shouting frustratedly, the lyrics to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles.

In the other cell, Jack Velazquez (Patrick Cannon), an impetuous freelance photographer who claims not to have a hometown but “sometimes lands in New York,” and Michael Apres (Tony Bingham), a buttoned-up news anchor from Hartford, Conn., find themselves stuck together in an arrangement reminiscent of “The Odd Couple.”

The banter and verbal sparring between Velazquez and Apres carries the play’s first half.

Bingham plays the straight man for Cannon’s Velazquez, a figure of explosive rage and brooding cynicism who prefers danger and uncertainty to what he sees as the mundanity of everyday life.

Velazquez gleefully recites the translations for “f*ck your mom” in Vietnamese, Russian and several other languages, acting as though his far-flung travels have done nothing but give him more ammunition with which to wallow in the world’s callousness.

When Apres reveals that a beating at the hands of his captors is the first time he’s suffered in his life, Velazquez cannot commiserate without showing his own arrogance.

“It’s a rite of passage,” Velazquez says. “Most of us go through it when we’re 9.”

Both men take turns succumbing to rage against their unseen captors. During these moments of panic, the actors give performances strong enough to make us squirm at being close to such raw displays of emotion.

As the resentment between Apres and Velazquez gives way to a bond over their shared captivity, this storyline goes from tense to cliche. Luckily, the relationship between Conway and Wolfe steals the show as the storyline between Velazquez and Apres dulls.

That Wolfe and Conway are a man and woman forced to live together in close proximity creates a complex dynamic. They become comfortable enough to reveal private details about themselves to one another. In the play’s most jarring and human moment, Conway tells Wolfe about the humiliation she felt when she had to explain to a teenage male captor that she was menstruating.

It is ultimately Ifft’s performance as Conway that gives the show its emotional weight. In one convincing moment, Conway’s attempts to control herself give way to exasperation when she admits she isn’t sure how she feels about her captors, who now provide her with food and water.

“I want them to come and I don’t want them to come,” she says when she hears footsteps outside her cell. “It is a strange sort of dependency we have on them.”