‘Torture is Wrong,’ but it’s also funny

Fort Lewis College play examines paranoia, prejudice

From left, Looney Tunes (Miles Batchelder), Hildegarde (Meryl Ramsey) and Leonard (Dennis Elkins) try to extract information from Zamir (Bradley Abeyta) while Felicity (Erin O’Connor) tries to find out what’s going on in her father’s mysterious room. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of McCarson Jones/Red Scarf Shots

From left, Looney Tunes (Miles Batchelder), Hildegarde (Meryl Ramsey) and Leonard (Dennis Elkins) try to extract information from Zamir (Bradley Abeyta) while Felicity (Erin O’Connor) tries to find out what’s going on in her father’s mysterious room.

Save for one demographic obstacle, the Fort Lewis College Theatre’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them” is a spot-on socio-political satire of post-Sept. 11 America.

I’ll get the criticism out of the way early, appropriate because the only part of the play that is flawed is the beginning. “Torture” opens with actors Erin O’Connor and Bradley Abeyta in bed together on an all-white but hardly Spartan set that accommodates all of the action on stage throughout the play.

Nearby, Felicia Meyer sews alone in a chair. All of this is happening while the house lights are up and the audience files in.

Problem one: Perhaps because of one too many think-outside-the-box experimental theater efforts, I have become inured to expect some kind of maudlin, post-modern bad trip whenever I see such experimental sets. So it took a few moments for me to realize I was watching a comedy. Then I was happy.

Problem two: There is a remarkable dearth of Pakistani actors in Durango. This caused another suspension of my suspension of disbelief as I struggled to determine the nationality of Abeyta’s Zamir as he started yelling at O’Connor’s Felicity in an unidentified accent in the opening scene.

Fortunately, my confusion didn’t linger, and the cast breezed through its third performance, a Sunday matinee.

We quickly learned that Felicity and Zamir met at Hooters the night before and got married in a drunken stupor. Just as quickly, we learn that Zamir gave Felicity Rohypnol – a sedative – and that he is potentially violent, has no job and has hopes to be supported by Felicity’s parents.

That doesn’t go over well with her father, Leonard (played by the age-appropriately cast Dennis Elkins), who immediately identifies Zamir as a potential terrorist and starts rallying support from his shadow government cronies. Leonard also maintains a secret room in the house where he purports to house his butterfly collection, but Felicity is justifiably suspicious of the ruse. As for Meyer’s role as Felicity’s mother, Luella, she’s a Stepford-like wife who owns the same dress in 10 different colors and lives an alternate reality grounded in the New York theater.

The play hits its “Three’s Company” zenith when Zamir and Reverend Mike (Mike Moran), who performed the barroom marriage, meet again at a bar to find gainful employment for Zamir. The reverend suggests he participate in his blockbuster adult film project a few days later – “The Big Bang.”

“I’m a porn-again Christian,” Mike quips.

The conversation is overheard by Leonard’s overzealous patriot, Hildegarde, played by Meryl Ramsey. Hearing words out of context like “Big Bang” and “multiple explosions,” she reports that they’re plotting a massive uprising of some sort.

Act II opens with an abducted Zamir facing his über-patriotic captors. Leonard is student of the John Yoo school of interrogation – “It’s not torture unless it causes organ failure or death” – and we are spared the most gruesome scenes by the grace of a thin muslin curtain.

In the aftermath, Felicity is able to do something that so many during the last decade-plus wish we could, too – just hit rewind and start all over again. Would that life could imitate theater. It’d be a lot more fun.

ted@durangoherald.com