Playwright: Donald Margulies. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.Phone: 312-335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org; $20-78. Runs through: May 13
Human beings are born seeing, but don't learn to talk for several years. This is why "a picture is worth a thousand words"and the more the picture approximates what we believe to be the actual experience, the easier it is to forget the flawed human being reproducing that "reality" experience for our viewing. Cameras don't lie, right? Is it any wonder that the camera operators, themselves, begin to forget, too?
James Dodd and Sarah Goodwin were war correspondentshe, a writer; she, a photographerin the Middle East when they met. Eight years later, James succumbs to stress-related disorders and returns stateside for some R&R. Soon after, Sarah is medivacked back with several broken limbs and a faceful of shrapnel, following a close encounter with a roadside bomb, only to find her consort a changed man, his appetite for blood-soaked violence now sated by Hollywood slasher-flicks being research for a forthcoming pop-cult book, and his future now focused on a gooey domesticity like that of his complacent editor and the latter's young and fecund wife. Oh, and he expects Sarah to share his newly adopted lifestyle.
The ensuing discussion covers the usual topicsthe role of the tragic messenger, the temptation for those messengers to inject speculative opinions into their accounts, and whether they do what they do for humanity or for the thrills. Austin Pendleton's contemplative direction takes the agenda further, however, encompassing existential questions regarding each individual's choice of his or her life's mission: Is Mandy's protectiveness toward her own baby more, or less, noble than Sarah's worldwide crusade on behalf of motherless children in foreign lands? Is it healthier to shroud oneself in placid comfort, or to bravely confront ugly chaos? Is a man diminished by his embrace of the nesting instinct, or a woman by her rejecting it?
Sarah's arguments for her devotion to duty are somewhat undermined by her speaking through a fog of painkillers for a large portion of the play, emphasizing Sally Murphy's spunky-little-girl mannerisms, but Margulies' dialectic loses none of its intelligence for being rendered with the careful attention to personal reflection characteristic of Pendleton's Chekhovian approach to his projects. With the current plethora of dramas relying on battlefront reports for their inspiration, an exploration of how those reports are obtained should provide intriguing conversation for audiences for whom war is a spectator sport.