Recomplicating Rachel Corrie
After the show on opening night, people walked into the lobby looking dazed. A man in a suit said, "Just for someone to have so much passion, no matter what her politics, is amazing." A woman in a shawl choked back tears: "I'm just—I'm just not ready to talk about it yet." Pamphleteers outside condemned Israel while ads in the program, bought by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, insisted, "My Name Is Rachel Corrie Does Not Tell the Whole Story." People were talking, less about Rachel Corrie—a play about a dead young woman who grew up an hour south—than about Rachel Corrie.
Reinforcing her realness was the impulse behind the play, which is all Rachel's words from diaries and correspondence (before she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah, Palestine, while acting as a human shield), as edited by Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman. They wanted to restore Rachel Corrie's good name and counter the abuse she'd received in the media and, especially, from bloggers. (A funny thing for a play—to try to de-fictionalize a person.)
The set, by Jennifer Zeyl, makes the transition between Corrie's Olympia home and Rafah smartly and efficiently—the play begins in her apartment, filled with college furniture and paraphernalia, which she packs while telling us about herself: "Sometimes I wear ripped blue jeans. Sometimes I wear polyester. Sometimes I take off all my clothes and swim naked at the beach." Once she's taken down her wall hangings and carted her things offstage, she's in a bare room with bullet-pocked walls and helicopter searchlights.
She was, according to Viner and Rickman's editing, a typical college idealist, torn between wanting to save the world and just wanting a decent boyfriend. She was a liberal of broad palette—you could just as easily imagine her joining Greenpeace as accepting the invitation to Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement to stand between Israeli bulldozers and the houses, gardens, and wells they destroy.
It wasn't her life, but the crushing irony of her death—an American activist killed by an American bulldozer bought with American military aid to an American ally—that makes her important. In the play, she acknowledges her idealism and flaws—she is, in her words, "scattered and messy"; she is also careless and naive; she says, "I look at things the wrong way"—unaware that they are leading her to her death. That is the play's second irony and it gives her sincere, sometimes callow words a tragic weight: Her trying on the idea that the difference between life and death is "just a shrug," listing the people she wants to hang out with in the afterlife, fantasizing about whether to go to Paris or Egypt next, not knowing what we know—that her shrug is coming fast.
That is the way to watch Rachel Corrie: Not as a profile of her virtuous character, nor as an indictment of Israeli policy, but as the story of a young, scattered woman who died for a principle in a conflict that she, by her own admission, didn't know a whole lot about.
The script makes Corrie more real than the hero vs. idiot split that dominates the discussion about her death, but it still feels like a whitewash. Her doubts seem superficial—she doubts herself but never her convictions, never wonders if she's completely wrong. Actor Marya Sea Kaminski finds the beating heart behind Corrie's diatribes, especially in a daunting, four-page concluding passage about the bulldozers and the Geneva Convention and her own brute fear. Kaminski is a charismatic actor, but she delivers too much of the show at the same pitch, giving every moment and sentence equal weight. It's numbing and seems like excessive reverence.
The Rep took a risk with this politically—and artistically—precarious production. A year ago, when the theater announced it would produce Rachel Corrie, the New York Theater Workshop had just canceled its production, afraid that the play would be perceived as anti-Semitic. (Which it isn't; Corrie says the Israeli operations in Rafah are "truly evil" but that "Jewish people are suffering too... it's important to draw a firm distinction between the policies of Israel as a state and Jewish people.")
Then the Rep announced the production team—not four-star imports or even Seattle's theater mandarins, but young artists: Marya Sea Kaminski (of the Washington Ensemble Theater), Jennifer Zeyl (also of WET and a Stranger Genius Award winner), Braden Abraham (a relatively green director), and L. B. Morse on lights.
The risk paid off. Rachel Corrie recomplicates Rachel Corrie. It's an imperfect but moving portrait of a woman transformed by her death into an icon—something a little more, and a little less, than a person.