Golden Thread's 'We Swim, We Talk, We Go To War' Has An Off-Handed Beauty
The American family drama is played out, so many fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters seething with anger and resentment over the many wrongs of the past. It’s the thanksgiving dinner that never ends.
What’s also somewhat played out is the political drama, the amped up dreams of playwrights desperate for significance, to be part of the drama of the world instead of its paltry reflection on stage. After all if you’re writing plays, let’s face it, you’re pretty much a cultural footnote—the game belongs to the Trumps and Kanyes and we’re all just witnesses to their triumphs, crimes, and failures.
Given what we might call the cultural situation, I wasn’t expecting much from Golden Thread’s world premiere of Mona Mansour’s family drama, We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War, and of course like many preconceptions I was wrong. What Mansour gives us is essentially a two-to-three-year argument that meanders around a young man’s choice to serve, go to war, and ultimately kill for America. That he’s a quarter-Lebanese complicates the matter, if not for him at least for his half-Lebanese Aunt.
So that’s the first pleasure of the evening: we clearly do not have enough plays about Aunts and Nephews, and especially when they’re kind of close in age, say twelve to fifteen years apart. We break with our parents, declaring both our emotional and philosophical independence, but we kind of slide along with their siblings, especially if they’re younger.
One of Mansour’s sharpest insights is that the drama of the Aunt and the Nephew is fluid and has few rules. Rather delightfully, it is also a source of joy, exactly what we expect and want from family. So when we first meet She (The Aunt) and He (The Nephew) we immediately get the sense that not only do these two people get a kick out of each other, but also that they’ve always gotten a kick out of each other. They want to be together.
They joke about their ages and looks: He is his twenties and She is in her thirties, no forties, but “vital and attractive” and then He insists that he is also “attractive” and She insists that everyone on stage is “attractive.” Then She talks about the year he was born, 1991, and what a “little blob” he was. More importantly, though, She wants him and us to understand what was in the air then—the Iraq war—and He counters that all he was aware of in 1991 was his “mouth and butt.”
You know there is a disagreement coming, but the dominant mode is care and fun. Aunt and nephew will argue and those arguments will be significant—why come to the theater if they don’t and they aren’t—but Mansour sidesteps the conventions of the family drama in the hopes of a more fluid approach, something less mired in ritual and more attuned to day-to-day life.
Her solution is to destroy the symbolic house on which family dramas are built, every room of it, the living rooms and dining rooms and kitchens that have propped up all the slamming doors, the pounded upon tables, the cabinets stuffed with liquor to fuel acidic barbs and mournful confessions, the fuel of American realism. And she trades all that in for water, and specifically the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego.
It is there that Aunt and Nephew go to swim, to be together, have an adventure, and it is there that they talk and talk and talk. That they often swim out too far, get lost in the fog, suffer cramps, worry about sharks, makes their ocean journeys both mundane and tense. This is something that they just do, that they’ve always done, and it is strangely and sadly full of hidden dangers.
And so the ocean is the perfect metaphor for the Aunt/Nephew relationship. It is eternally present and occasionally fraught, but it goes on and on and on with the only chance of real rupture, death. We Swim, We Talk, We Go To War is not a great play, but it is a timely one and sharp in how it approaches political differences. I wish Mansour had cut it back to its most essential moments, but its pleasures are engaging in ways that political theater rarely is.
A Few Compliments and Criticisms
Joshua Chessing-Yudiun (He) and Tre’Vonne Bell (The American) serve Mansour’s aesthetic goals in fascinating ways. They take on a flat, affectless, and precise style of acting that gains in power as the evening goes on. They never seem to be trying and because of that they repeatedly catch us off guard, emotionally and intellectually. Even better, you feel that they are real people.
Sarah Nina Hayon (She) is a fine actress, a gifted comic with a rubbery, malleable face born to play farce. In this particular play she seems just a bit off at times, never enough to unbalance the production, but you wonder if a less mannered and bouncy performance might have taken the play in more rueful, powerful directions.
Mansour has a nice talent for the nuts and bolts of theater, but at times she veers off course with unnecessary experiments. What she’s done here is to make the off-handed, throw away moments tense and dramatic. The play would probably be better served if she kept to that one register.
The script dictates how the actors should perform the swimming and the cast does it well, but the playwright might allow for a little more directorial and design leeway in future productions. Her solutions don’t seem quite right to me.
Finally, Golden Thread’s last two productions (Kiss co-produced with the Shotgun Players and We Swim, We Talk, We Go To War) under Everen Odcikin’s assured direction have caught some of the tenor of the times. That’s nice and we should compliment them for it.
‘We Swim, We Talk, We Go To War’ runs through December 16 at the Potrero Playhouse in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.