Of Barbara Lebow’s 20-plus produced plays, Plumfield, Iraq is the first to incorporate a current catastrophe. A tale of innocence lost in the moral morass of war, it begins precisely five years ago-when President Bush infamously declared “Mission Accomplished”-and, in a roundabout way, delivers us more or less to the present moment.
But for all its ripped-from-the-headlines resonance, the drama-which will have its world premiere at UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre Friday night-has been evoking distant memories in the veteran playwright. Some date back as far as six decades. “The seeds of this play-of every play I write-go way, way back,” Lebow said. “Sometimes it can take decades for a play to emerge.”
In an interview, she reminisced about a favorite uncle who would carry her on his shoulders when she was a tot, and the fact he somehow wasn’t the same person when he came back from World War II. She recounted spending a year of the Cold War living on an Army base, fearing her husband would be sent overseas. She recalled reading newspaper stories about the Vietnam War, and fearing the conflict would still be going on when her sons reached draft age.
Needless to say, all those memories are emotionally charged, and it is those emotions that energize Plumfield, Iraq. It concerns two friends who enlist in the Army in 2003 to escape their dull, small-town lives. One of them is thrust into an ethically compromising situation he never imagined, and the resultant emotional wounds deeply complicate his return home.
“What’s universal about it-what makes it a play that I believe will last-is it is not about this specific war,” said Risa Brainin, who is directing the Theatre UCSB production. “It’s really about how any war affects someone who survives it.”
That said, she is excited by the way the material is hitting home with her student actors, who are essentially the same age as the characters they play. One cast member thought seriously about enlisting in the military before changing his mind. Several others have friends deployed overseas. Any gaps in their knowledge have been filled in by news reports and a visit by a veteran, who described his experiences during two tours of duty in Iraq.
Plumfield, Iraq deals with the costs of war, but Lebow hesitated when asked whether it’s an anti-war play. “It’s certainly not a pro-war play,” she said. “But it’s not a marching, yelling anti-war play. I never consciously write a message play. I don’t like being hit over the head with a message. I can’t start with an idea. I start with a feeling, and then the way to express the feeling somehow emerges.”
It emerged most memorably in Lebow’s 1986 drama A Shayna Maidel, a critically acclaimed story of surviving the Holocaust which continues to be revived at regional theaters. Another of her plays, Trains, was produced by the Ensemble Theatre Company in 2000.
“Each play she writes creates its own distinct world,” said Brainin, who called Plumfield, Iraq “incredibly fluid. It moves in and out of different realms, from memory to fantasy to reality.”
A native of Brooklyn, Lebow was exposed to the stage at an early age. “My mother loved theater,” she said. “From as young as I can remember, she took me to plays almost every week. This was when they always had a red velvet curtain. Every time I went to a play, I wondered what world I was going to be in when that curtain opened. [As a playwright] I have always wanted to recreate that excitement.”
Since moving to Santa Barbara several years ago, Lebow has deeply embedded herself in the community. She worked for a time at the Los Prietos Boys Camp/Boys Academy, helping troubled youngsters express themselves through theater.
She established a connection with UCSB in 2005, when Prof. Nancy Kawalek of the Film and Media Studies Department received a grant from the Playwrights Center of Minneapolis and invited Lebow to become a playwright-in-residence. She began the first draft of Plumfield, Iraq while working with Kawalek’s students.
In a sense, Lebow is battling the odds with Plumfield, Iraq. There have been more than half a dozen Iraq War-themed movies over the past year, and not one has been well-received by critics or audiences. Could it be that we don’t have enough distance from this war to make sense of it through art?
Lebow pondered the question for a few moments before answering with an anecdote. “Some months ago I heard a military officer interviewed on PBS,” she recalled. “The reporter said something to the effect of ‘The U.S. has been in Iraq for five years.’ He replied: ‘The United States military is in Iraq. The United States is at the mall.’ In that sense, there is distance.”
Plumfield, Iraq will play on May 16-17 and May 22-24 at 8 p.m., and on May 18 at 2 p.m. All performances are at UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre. For tickets and information, visit dramadance.ucsb.edu or call 893-7221.