Timeline Theater's terrific production
of "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom"
is far more powerful than the London original. That's
partly because this Chicago premiere contains superior
acting — mostly from new or underexposed faces
dripping in veracity. But it's mainly because the couple
of years removed from the initial establishment of the
infamous Cuban detention center has added to the weight
and value of this political drama.
"Guantanamo" was rushed
to the stage for political purposes. When Nicolas Kent
of London's Tricycle Theatre had the idea of putting
together a docudrama made up of interviews with prisoners,
lawyers, family members and other stakeholders, he had
specific goals: Highlight the experience of the British
detainees, publicize the inherent immorality of indefinite
incarceration, without adherence either to international
judicial standards or the Geneva Convention, and get
everyone back on British soil.
The resultant play, penned by Victoria
Brittain and Gillian Slovo, took as its thesis the words
of Lord Justice Steyn, the British legal scholar who
delivered a stinging rebuke of the assumptions behind
Guantanamo. After calling Guantanamo a stain on the
U.S. judicial tradition, Steyn lectured that history
proves even liberal democracies tended to overreact
when faced with a threat, granting government and its
security forces extraordinary powers out of proportion
with the threat. "Often," Steyn remarked,
"the loss of freedom is permanent."
"Guantanamo" was on a stage
in London just weeks after Steyn delivered those actual
remarks. It preached, of course, mainly to the choir.
As the theatrical equivalent of an op-ed column, "Guantanamo"
was successful, to a point. But to also function as
an aesthetically rich piece of theater, it needed more
time. Now, though the issues are still contentious,
the themes and ideas resonate well beyond the immediate
concern of the play. In other words, "Guantanamo"
has passed from agitation-propaganda into the realm
of rich political drama.
The most obvious manifestation of
this is that the play seems as much about the current
flap over presidentially authorized domestic surveillance.
Steyn's argument is one side of that current fight.
The other — which this play poorly represents
— is that the U.S. faces a threat so severe that
these worries are bogus. It's a debate worth pondering
in the theater. Especially when realized by the director
Nick Bowling in such sophisticated but honest fashion.
"Guantanamo" was first performed
prior to the London bombings. That event — perpetrated
mainly by British citizens on their own nation —
now echoes through this material, undermining its surety
in a way the authors didn't anticipate.
All of this makes "Guantanamo"
a complex theatrical experience. It's not a flawless
play — the second act stutters with repetition.
But it's holding up to history well. To his great credit,
Bowling uses some skillfully produced video segments
to deftly link the actors to their real-life counterparts
and the staged events to historical truth. That major
enhancement wasn't on stage in London.
All of the actors are competent. Many
—Clayton Smerican (full of vulnerability and uncertainty),
Christian Castro, Hunter Stiebel, Robert Allan Smith
and Don Blair (who does both Donald Rumsfeld and a British
Lord with notable aplomb) go well beyond that. They
make this a powerful chance to ponder problems of the
moment — and moments well into the future.