“You don’t know what I’m thinking.” So says Hasan (Terence Sims) to Lloyd (Sam Hubbard), and the tense silence they share in the wake of these words defines “Damascus,” a timely play about identity and choice that doesn’t quite live up to its Pinter pauses, though Strawdog’s expansive production showcases performances that build mystery and evoke questions.
Hasan is a van driver at the Minneapolis airport. He is deeply in debt, attempting to make ends meet by using his van both for work and as a crash pad. When Lloyd bangs on his passenger’s side window, desperate to be driven to Chicago and catch a connecting flight to California in order to visit his dying mother, Hasan reluctantly agrees to leave the city, eventually demanding Lloyd pay double his initial fee. As the two drive, they face larger concerns about what is right and wrong, and what we owe to one another in times of danger.
To say more would spoil the plot, but Bennett Fisher’s script gets a lot of mileage out of the cultural misunderstandings and microaggressions that Lloyd wages against Hasan at first. The two men come from entirely different worlds — Hasan a Somali immigrant who doesn’t remember his childhood in Africa, and Lloyd a well-to-do college student who seems to think that studying civil war is the same thing as experiencing it. Hasan is a prickly man, hard to pin down with chat about his background, and in fact, we never fully learn what drives him beyond a need to survive day to day. Lloyd is easier to see, at least initially, but when the tables turn, and Hasan asks questions of him, terrifying new motivations reveal themselves, and alter the trajectory of the play.
Director Cody Estle is faithful, I believe, to the playwright’s vision, though I question the amount of space in this production. There is a lot of silence in this world, and most of it feels inorganically injected by the playwright, rather than developed between the actors from moment to moment. I could be wrong, but something about the scenic structure makes me suspect that Fisher felt doling very little information out over long stretches of quiet would adequately build tension between his two leads. This can work when we know the characters and their wants well, and the turn Lloyd takes halfway through the play does pump up the dramatic conflict enormously. But Fisher does not help his production team by allowing so few specifics about Hasan and Lloyd to come to light. In order for the audience to invest in their relationship, they cannot remain ciphers for quite so long, and the silence doesn’t build to decisions so much as it builds to more hedging and stalling. If the play is a thriller, as it is described by Estle in the program note, then more flesh and blood needs to be exposed in its eighty-five minutes.
That said, the director does fine work with Sims and Hubbard, as well as with Eleni Pappageorge in a variety of roles where she encounters these men on the road. The script may keep Hasan and Lloyd from connecting, but you never fail to read each actor’s thoughts as they sit together, fighting over the radio. Such attention to detail is important in the high stakes scenario they enter, and both are dedicated to find common ground, even as their characters grow farther apart.
Jeffrey Kmiec’s scenic design is cleverly done, showcasing the uncovered steel frame of the van, stripping away artifice in the same fashion as Hasan and Lloyd are meant to do. The van rotates onstage, indicating miles travelled, and works in tandem with flashing lights designed by John Kelly. Those lights indicate passage of time, or broken moments between the men. The theatricalized nature of these elements doesn’t always track, as the more heightened lighting moments don’t match the realistic text, but sound designer Sarah Espinoza’s radio static and contemporary hits station ground the production overall.
While “Damascus” may not fully pay off on the dread it builds over its road trip from Minneapolis to Chicago, the production still manages to leave the audience with questions about its characters, and questions about what we might do, were we faced with impossible choices and intractable philosophies about the modern world.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Two men confront their motivations on a tense road trip.
DIE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”
Company: Strawdog Theatre Company
Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)