For all the controversy they've stirred up in New York and London, the creators of My Name Is Rachel Corrie have insisted that their play takes no side in any particular conflict, even though the one-woman show is about an American peace activist killed in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer. Instead, they've argued, it's a portrait of idealism, a celebration of a young activist and writer who left the comforts of home to stand in solidarity with suffering people. I can't swallow any claim that Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, who adapted the play from Corrie's e-mails and journals, hoped to craft a piece of apolitical theater. But I've always been disheartened by the anger that Rachel Corrie has inspired. In an absurd and censorious way, protests of a play about a protester seem to parody the shortsighted, eye-for-an-eye thinking that the real-life Corrie railed against.
Buying a ticket to this Martin Tanner Production, directed by Herman Johansen on the Unicorn's Jerome Stage, doesn't mean you're interested in the death of Israel. It means you're interested in the birth, or growth, of a political consciousness. Most of us accept that there's always going to be human suffering, but Corrie refused this with all the passion and moral certitude of youth. Sometimes, because she (as played by actress Katie Gilchrist) was so fired up with truth and her own conversational poetry, I felt that moral certitude, too.
She makes the case that criticism of the Israeli government is not criticism of the Jewish people. She also dishes: about a guy who one-ups her, a hilarious trip to Dairy Queen, and shopping for T-shirts in the little boys' section at the Salvation Army. No matter what its supporters say, My Name Is Rachel Corrie is deeply political; no matter what its opponents say, it's also packed with the telling details that make life matter. Its only problem is its lack of dramatic action, a consequence of its adapters' fidelity to Corrie's own writings. Her words often fascinate, but potential audiences should know that they'll often be watching Gilchrist pretend to type and receive e-mails.
A fiery beauty whose smile comes slowly and bears traces of punkish disdain, Gilchrist has long excelled at the ferocious and the ironic. What a surprise, then, that she summons such principled earnestness. Her Rachel is personable, even sunny. Over the course of the evening, I felt less like I was watching an actress and more like I was hanging out with an activist. That's a good thing, but it also makes for dry patches, which I guess is thematic. Gilchrist captures much of what has struck me as admirable in the activists I've known, but also much of what's human, including a tendency to gas on and on.
Fortunately, Gilchrist's intelligence shines through even in the rough spots. As with many chatty young people, her Corrie is working out who she is as she talks. At times, Gilchrist's eyes and Corrie's words tell us two different things; these moments of unexpressed fear or doubt hit harder than Corrie's most accomplished speeches.
With actions and incidents to describe, Gilchrist and director Johansen summon the world around Corrie, one ablaze with voices and violence and well-realized moments of grace. With long, dithering monologues about Corrie's parents or beliefs, Gilchrist is less certain, relying on distracting bits of business, occasionally gushing through lines with great speed and too little clear emphasis. This occurs most often in the opening scenes in Corrie's bedroom, where an underdressed Gilchrist — a grown woman playing a growing woman — seems physically uncomfortable, hugging her arms and knees, and carrying her body not like a girl sharing her most intimate thoughts from the safety of her own bed but like a young woman uncomfortable at being put on display. Fortunately, some 10 minutes in, she pulls a hoodie over her tanktop and relaxes.
From there, her performance is finely realized, save the tendency to rush. There's room to slow down.
Admittedly, I wasn't disappointed when the play wrapped up a little early. There's little dramatic material, even in the Palestinian passages, so audiences spend the second half waiting for the inevitable. Corrie witnesses escalating episodes of tragic violence, but her personal tragedy is, by the nature of this adaptation, undramatized. Because Rickman and Viner have limited themselves — tastefully but unsatisfyingly — to Corrie's own words, a news broadcast and one affecting video, Corrie's death is presented as a horrific afterthought. I respect this lack of sentimentality, but I wish that the moment were more clear to us. As Corrie stared down the bulldozer, what transpired around her? What did she say? What flickered across her face? What did she think she might be accomplishing?
You may consider Rachel Corrie's convictions naïve. I'd rather think of them as the opposite of cynical. My Name Is Rachel Corrie might not be great drama, but, with rare and admirable courage, Gilchrist and Johansen stare down the great questions of the age.
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