Torture. It's on the mind and in the hearts of each of the three characters in Palace of the End, the 2008 Susan Smith Blackburn Award-winning play about the Iraq war by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson. According to Thompson's program note, "Each of these three monologues is based on news stories or research on events involving the real person named the speaker, but the persona or character of each speaker has been created by me, and everything other than the real events spring from my imagination." Unfortunately, Thompson's imagination causes her to stack the deck, undercutting emotional truth despite compelling language. Nevertheless, Daniella Topol's direction elicits smooth and powerful performances, and Mimi Lien's set design of angled shapes and minimal furniture combined with the subtle projections by Leah Gelpe adds spooky atmosphere.
In My Pyramids, a pregnant Lynndie England, the Abu Ghraib soldier who came up with the human pyramid idea, awaits trial. As a child in West Virginia, she participated in bullying a one-legged girl to fit in socially. Now England tortures herself by self-Googling to read obscene insults and remembering the words of a mullah forced to eat excrement, as well as by pretending she did nothing wrong. We like her, hate her, sympathize with her, detest her. Teri Lamm's fine performance is shot through with vulnerable bravado and intelligence.
In Harrowdown Hill, Dr. David Kelly, a scientist who colluded in false reports about weapons of mass destruction, hides in the woods near his home waiting for his suicide to take effect. Thompson posits that the rape and slaughter of Iraqi friends — in a thinly fictionalized version of the 2006 killings of an Iraqi family in Mahmudiyah — motivated Kelly to speak out, which made his life a living hell. But Thompson errs by conflating the 2006 killings and Kelly's 2003 suicide; it lessens both Kelly, whose motivation might have been entirely different, and the murdered family, whose tragedy is real and not a Western character's footnote. Coming after a play about Abu Ghraib, Harrowdown Hill also implies that soldier equals criminal and omits other information about the unstable situation there. Despite Rocco Sisto's dignified, nuanced performance, Kelly's dying feels interminable.
Heather Raffo is riveting in Instruments of Yearning as Nehrjas Al Saffarh, an Iraqi woman who reminds us of the repressions and tortures under Saddam Hussein. Raffo, the author of 9 Parts of Desire, hits every comic and poignant note brilliantly. A communist, Al Saffarh and her children were brutally tortured at Saddam's horrific Palace of the End. She torments herself with memory and the question of why she didn't give her torturers the information they were asking for in order to spare her children. Saffarh, who died under American bombs in the first Gulf War, has a powerful story, but bringing her into the current war as a ghost who talks about Saddam, George Bush, and Tony Blair in the same breath undercuts that power. The piece is beautiful but not entirely convincing.
Like the evening itself.
Presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St, NYC. June 23-July 13. Tue.-Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 3 p.m. (No performance Fri., July 4.) (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com. Casting by Paul Davis/Calleri Casting.