“History repeats itself.”
I loathe that adage because it is untrue. History never repeats “itself”. Man, because he is too foolish to learn from history, simply continues making the same mistakes over and over. In the “Year of the Rabbit” Playwright Keliher Walsh, places before us the human price of that folly. It is the story of two wars in two faraway lands. It is a story of family.
We begin with Lieu (Elyse Dinh), the pampered daughter of a prosperous Vietnamese family destined to be destroyed by revolution. It is her story of suffering and hardship, and her love for an American grunt (Meshach Taylor). Lt. Brice Skinner (Will McFadden) is a hot shot pilot in the Iraqi conflict hoping to escape his elite, upper class background. It is his story. Lt. Kara Bridges (Ashanti Brown) his co-pilot, battles to overcome the barriers of being black and female in a white male world. It is her story. Spence Skinner (Peter Mackenzie) and his wife Allis Skinner (playwright Walsh), prominent in Georgetown’s society, secretly struggling to confront the loss of a child, and of themselves; it is their story.
“War is another country,” we are told, and the sentiment reads correctly, but what Walsh brings to awareness is that while “another country” it may be, whether we realize it or not, that “country “ is always our country, and the stories our stories.
For we are the family human.
Good playwrights entertain us, the best playwrights enrich us, and Walsh is firmly in the second camp. She has taken for her theme, the subject of war and warriors, normally the exclusive domain of male writers, and one which is awash in a swamp of testosterone. But Walsh populates her stage with combatants other than those of just opposing political agendas, for there are battlefields of humanity that we all meet on, those conflicts which our worlds and lives are formed from; conservative/liberal, black/ white, realist/idealist, have/ have not, East/West, falsehood/truth, male/female, parent/ child.
Walsh is exploring that great conflict and tragedy in being human, that we can gaze on the most distant objects, observing minute details from far off space with crystal clarity, while we are blind to the suffering of that person standing beside us.
There are moments earlier in the play where one is uncertain of the ground we are on. Which war is this, whose story are we being told? This is not a misstep on the playwright’s part, but a deliberate ploy by Walsh at unsettling us, forcing us to question what is past, what is present. For as history does not repeat itself, neither is it “history”. This instant, right now is history. Who we are at this very moment and who we hope of being is history. The choice we make tomorrow is history. History is written in the beating of the human heart.
In the program notes, Walsh reveals herself a mother of two sons, who first began work on this piece during the outset of the Iraqi conflict. A guidepost to appreciating what Walsh is attempting here is perhaps found in a line she has spoken on her stage: “It’s dangerous becoming a mother, the landscape changes.”
The actors here, across the board, are extraordinary talents, and TV junkies will undoubtedly recognize both Mackenzie and Taylor. As playwright, Walsh has penned in Allis Skinner a character of daunting and demanding dimensions, as the actress in the role she does not disappoint the writer. Her performance is exquisitely nuanced. One must also tip the hat in admiration of Dinh, who bears the responsibility for bringing unity to the drama, and flashing about the stage like shimmering quicksilver.
James Eckhouse, as director, masterfully employs an economy of means, skillfully applying brush strokes of light and sound to create a panorama of different worlds and a diversity of realms. The show’s scenic designer Hana S. Kim, lighting designer Pablo Santiago, and Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound design are flawlessly layered and serve the demands of the staging to perfection. Between Walsh, Eckhouse, their superlative ensemble of actors, and the top notch production talents assembled on this stage we have the epitome of what makes the theatre great.
But there is another component to the quotation above, and that is filled by the audience itself. For this is not a play to be left behind in the theatre along with the rolled up program as one blithely bounds towards the exit – this is a work to be carried out, and pondered in some quiet moments to come.
For as Walsh so eloquently illustrates, we can be brutalized and brutal, bleed or grieve, we can delude ourselves and one another, betray those we love and ourselves, we can allow ourselves to putrefy in the past or strive forward to brave whatever the future may bring, humanity can be sublimely inhumane behaving with a viciousness that strains our very existence; yet there is the possibility of redemption held out by the stars that burn brightly over us and the hope that flickers in our souls.
And choice must be made.
Year of the Rabbit
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Performances through October 28