Prisoner-of-conscience Micah shouts into the darkness: “Hello! Is anyone still out there?”
This question, weighted with loneliness and despair, echoes through local playwright Andrew Kooman’s drama We Are the Body, which premiered on Tuesday night at the Scott Block in downtown Red Deer.
Kooman’s gripping play, staged by Calgary’s Burnt Thicket Theatre, follows the gruelling plight of three prisoners who are locked in separate cells for their Christian beliefs in Soviet-era Romania.
The lyrical, intense script delivered an emotion-packed evening of theatre during Monday’s dress rehearsal — especially in the first act. We audience members became uncomfortable voyeurs, watching Elsie (Heather Pattengale), Richard (Tim Bratton) and Micah (John McIver) suffer daily beatings and tortures that were both implied and acted out on stage.
As the prisoners re-examined their beliefs while communicating in Morse code tapping, a friendship grew between the three.
At first this helped sustain them through their ordeal. Then two of the prisoners get moved into sensory deprivation cells further underground, where they see only blackness and hear silence, week after week, month after month.
Not only does this psychological torture break one of them — this particular plot point, about halfway through the second act, also marks the moment Kooman’s overlong play loses focus and bogs down in religious rhetoric.
There are allusions to the prodigal son, Christ’s sacrifice and even Judas-like betrayal. Suddenly the plot that managed to reflect universal themes of overcoming inhumanity through human connection devolves into sermonizing and dogma.
It didn’t have to. Kooman is a talented playwright, whose sparse, visceral dialogue can make viewers think and also hit them in the gut, as shown in his 2012 play about sex trafficking, She Has a Name.
He is also a Christian. And while it’s possible to appeal to both Christian and secular audiences with humanist messages, these need to transcend religious partisanship and become more universal in scope.
The last scenes of We Are the Body get awfully preachy, which might not bother churchgoers, but hold less appeal for wider audiences. The irony is that the oppression that Kooman describes is happening across the globe to people from all walks of life — those persecuted for politics, religion, sexual orientation, or because of racial or tribal prejudices.
Despite its dogma, We Are the Body is generally a more cohesive and well-written play than She Has a Name, which largely filtered a female sex-worker’s story through a male human rights worker. There are no filters here. The three prisoners deliver stark dialogue directly to the audience, making for some powerful moments.
Kooman intelligently and empathetically portrays the mental and physical sufferings of those deprived of basic human rights.
And the play contains tremendous performances by the three-actor cast: Pattengale, as a young woman whose memories of her fiancé Ionel helps her survive imprisonment, but also torment her; Bratton, as a Jewish Christian convert and pastor who tries to keep up the spirits of his fellow prisoners; and McIver in the dual roles of a prisoner who wavers in his faith and a sadistic prison guard.
Director Stephen Waldschmidt shows these characters fading in and out of memories and dreams, through innovative staging tricks.
At one point, the three prisoners feel so closely connected, while tapping out a conversation, that they are shown as if talking around the same table — even though we know each is still inhabiting an individual cell.
In another scene, a delusional Elsie is seemingly caught between a kindly priest — surely a figment of her imagination — and a devilish tormentor.
Kooman hoped We Are the Body would spur conversations about people who are unjustly imprisoned around the world.
Many theatregoers will undoubtedly leave this play thinking about Amnesty International and questioning how they would react in similar circumstances — are there convictions worth suffering or dying for?
The play continues to Saturday. Tickets are available at the door or from burntthicket.com.