Theater Review: Necessary Targets

It’s been a while since I posted a review piece on this blog (no coincidence that these things fall by the wayside mid-semester), but I saw a theatrical performance of Necessary Targets on Sunday at the University of Arizona’s Tornabene Theater as part of the Arizona Repertory Theater series and I thought I’d share a review.

This play was written by Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. (I’m ashamed to admit as a feminist that I’ve never seen that work either. What do you want from me? My life is busy and unless they stage a production in my office during office hours, I’m unlikely to make it.) The focus is on women in the aftermath of the war in Bosnia, sometime around the mid- to late-1990s. The two primary characters, Melissa and J.S., are Americans. J.S. is an upscale New York psychiatrist who’s been asked to join a presidential commission to help war refugees, and Melissa is a seasoned war reporter working on a book who may or may not be going as J.S.’s “assistant.” The two journey to Bosnia in the play’s first act, where they meet a group of female refugees they are charged with helping. Over the course of the play, there are two themes of development: The development of the relationship between the refugee women and the Americans, leading to the revelation of their stories, and the development taking place within the American women.

I was lukewarm on this play overall. As characters, the refugee women are far more developed than the two Americans. As the stories of these women unfold over the course of the play, the Bosnian women come to feel real. This is likely no accident, as the play was inspired by Ensler’s own interaction and interviews with women in actual refugee camps. The stories of rape, murder, and abuse are therefore close to the ugly reality of what transpired in the conflict. The American women, on the other hand, are crudely drawn. While their character development is central to the play, these women areĀ  caricatures and they to some extent remain that throughout. J.S. has such a stick up her butt, reflected in her very prim speech, dress, and actions, that one wonders why she would have ever been chosen for this assignment in the first place. She comes across more as a neo-Victorian society matron who would swoon at the first sign of danger than she does a seasoned professional. Likewise, hard-as-nails Melissa also seems a poor choice. We’re told she’s been trained as a trauma counselor, but from the very beginning she shows little to no interest in the wellness of the “traumatized war victims” she’s working with, and at no point in the play does she demonstrate any kind of sensitivity toward them.

There are also weird inconsistencies and many points that seem not fully developed. At the beginning of the play, we are told that refugee Asra is a lonely old women and it is insinuated that she’s never been married or had sex. Yet later, it is revealed that she was once a wet nurse for a child in her village. Is that possible? There are also hints that Melissa is suffering from an eating disorder, but this plot point only comes up at the beginning and end of the play and is not fully fleshed out. The play’s final scene, with J.S. reflecting on her time in Bosnia, has the potential to be masterful, but it fell short for me. Almost as if she (and Ensler) are unable to truly articulate the meaning of these encounters.

That said, the play does have moments of brilliance. When the tragic past of one of the refugees, Seada, is revealed, it has a powerful emotional impact. Another of the refugees, Zlata, a former doctor who has lost everything as a result of the war, consistently steals every scene she’s in. In this particular performance, all of the young female actors (drama students at the U of A) did a superb job. Kudos also to those who worked on the costumes and set designs. Sunday’s performance was the last day of this play’s run here in Tucson, but it won’t be my last visit to an Arizona Repertory Theater production.

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