The Working Theater has spent the past 25 years producing theater that focuses on the struggles of ordinary people. Their newest production, opening in January on Theater Row, is Stefanie Zadravec’s Honey Brown Eyes (Helen Hayes Award recipient for Best Play 2009). Directed by Erica Schmidt, the play depicts the devastation that descends upon middle class people when war tears through the walls. Set in two kitchens, one in Sarajevo and another in Visegrad during the Bosnian war, the play tells the story of Alma, a baker to be played by Sue Cremin, and her brother, Denis, a former musician, to be played by Daniel Serafini-Sauli, as each try to survive another day.
“I never feel like I can write expertly on war at all,” says playwright Stefanie Zadravec from her Ditmas Park home, where she lives with her husband and twin boys. Rather than trying to capture the confusing political climate that caused Bosnian Civil War, Zadravec focuses her attention to the human scale, and how individual lives are transformed in the face of historical cataclysms. “I tend to write smaller stories that fit into larger contexts,” she says, reflecting on her approach to such a daunting subject. “Originally I wanted to write about the rape camps, but I found the play was more alive in the kitchen.”
This familiar setting brings the audience of Honey Brown Eyes in to encounter the relatable occurrences of daily life as they collide with startling violence. Too often, stories of genocide come to us through the media in ways that make it easy to turn them into abstraction. Death tolls and numbers are easily forgotten. Zadravec asks us to rethink the events of war in terms of the small tragedies that beset ordinary people every day. Honey Brown Eyes begins with its main character, Alma, being held at gunpoint as she invites her aggressor, Dragan (Edoardo Ballerini), to join her for a morning cup of coffee. The scene reveals with sickening clarity how atrocity in war becomes ordinary routine.
“There is a sense of distancing and not distancing the audience from what happens. I want to show how we are more similar than different [from Bosnians],” Zadravec comments as she describes the devices the play uses to that effect. The characters speak in the American vernacular without accents, but their stylized speech is undercut by a syncopated laugh track that plays from a small television set that sits on the table. The characters watch Alf and make Cosby Show references which are easily understood by an American audience but have entirely different meanings given the context.
Born to a literary family, Zadravec grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, as the youngest of six children. Her parents met while both writing for the Washington Post, her father a sports writer, her mother a columnist who later became a poet and Emily Dickinson scholar. Zadravec’s father was the child of immigrants who grew up speaking Slovenian and Hungarian. Traces of the playwright’s heritage can be found in Honey Brown Eyes, from the poetic, rhythmic force of the dialogue to the attention paid to a time and place mostly forgotten by Americans.
The war in Bosnia raged on while the playwright was in college. “It was a war that I grew up on,” she recalls, describing her connection to the conflict largely ignored by the international community despite horrific stories of rape camps and ethnic cleansing. After graduating from college, Zadravec came to New York to pursue a career in acting which landed her behind the bar in an Upper East Side restaurant called Lumi, owned by a woman from Kosovo. Staffed primarily by immigrants from that region, there Zadravec became friends with people whose lives had been shattered by a war she had only read about. “Working with them made me aware of my own ignorance,” she says. From the first hand accounts of her co-workers, Zadravec came to understand the crushing impact war has on individual civilian lives.
Director Erica Schmidt centers her production of Honey Brown Eyes around the notion that “this could be any kitchen in the world.” Schmidt and Zadravec have been working on changes to the play from its previous production at Theater J in Washington, D.C., to create one kitchen where the two narratives from dueling cities collide, in an attempt to underscore the cruel redundancy of war’s terror on everyday homes. “As Americans it’s hard for us to think it could happen here. We ignored Bosnia and Rwanda. We ignore Afghanistan. The more we as Americans can see ourselves in these characters, the better for us,” says Schmidt about why this story is important now. She refers to the fact that people in wartime often go without water, with scarce food, trying to survive with shattered infrastructure: “People in Fallujah went without power for longer than people did in Sarajevo. Think of how people [in New York] were panicked during the blackout.” New York went one day and it felt catastrophic. Fallujah went eight months without electricity. Schmidt remarks, “It is important to understand what war does on a domestic scale.”
Mark Plesent, Producing Artistic Director of the Working Theater, read Honey Brown Eyes and “fell in love with it.” Although not directly about working class struggles, the production fulfills his theater’s mission because the play depicts the way war affects the fabric of daily life for ordinary people. Plesent’s father is a World War II veteran, and he grew up under the fear that he would be drafted into Vietnam. But like many Americans, war for him “always felt like it was happening somewhere else. This play made me feel like this is what it would be like if it was being fought in New York City. It felt immediate in a new and powerful way.”
The Working Theater was founded by a group of actors in the 1980s against the backdrop of Reagan-era trickle-down rhetoric. Its first leader, Bill Mitchelson, had not seen a play until he was 18 years old, and he made it the theater’s priority to get working people into the audience as much as it was to represent them onstage. “We do a lot of outreach,” says Plesent, “and most of it is based on one-on-one relationship building.” Despite the technological advances of the information age, the fundamental unit of human communication continues to be a conversation between two people.
Honey Brown Eyes illustrates this point by showing how dramatic historical events come down to the choices individuals make in one-on-one interactions. In that comes the realization that ordinary people create reality through personal actions, which posits us both as powerful and culpable. According to Schmidt, the play also shows “the hopeful choices humans make in the worst of circumstances.” The character Jovanka (to be played by Marcia Haufrecht) extends salvation and generosity to Denis by offering a plate of cooked food. Everyday things take on significant import in the play’s brutal, war-torn context, reminding its audience of the value of a peaceful life often taken for granted.