Although it suffers from some uneven pacing, Stefanie Zadravec’s new drama succeeds powerfully in its effort to put a human face on the Bosnian War. By highlighting themes of survival, torn loyalties and loss of innocence, Honey Brown Eyes enables us to see ourselves in a chapter of history most of us know only through CCN dispatches and political rhetoric.
The action begins during the Visegrad massacre of 1992. Dragan, played by Edoardo Ballerini, is part of the invading Serbian militia. Tyrannized by his commanding officer Branko, played with chilling menace by Gene Gillette, Dragan is determined to discharge his horrific orders. He stands in a sparse kitchen pointing an assault weapon at Alma, played by Sue Cremin. Dragan insists that Alma is a Muslim, and that she is hiding a daughter. (As part of the “ethnic cleansing” program, Muslim women and girls were rounded up and systematically raped). Yet Alma denies the allegation, even after Dragan beats and threatens her. The stalemate eventually leads to a calmer conversation, and Alma and Dragan realize they knew each other long ago. Alma’s brother Denis was in a band with Dragan. She was lovely then, and Dragan had a burning crush on her. They never imagined they’d end up on opposite sides of a gun. The play’s present tense urgency slackens a bit as the characters explore their shared memories, but picks up again at the end of the act when Dragan is forced to choose between conscience and duty. Especially moving is the introduction of Alma’s daughter Zlata, played by the promising young actress Beatrice Miller, who evinces a stubborn determination to somehow survive the scourge against daunting odds.
The second act is stronger, with the exposition rising organically of a budding friendship between two unlikely allies. A survivor of many regime changes, Jovanka, played by Kate Skinner, putters about her small apartment preparing a frugal meal and trying to get her boom box to work properly. In Skinner’s hands, this quiet moment is rivetingly human. With little dialogue, she manages to invest the character with stoic dignity and resilient spirit. Jovanka’s routine is soon disrupted, however, by frantic knocking on the door. Despite the stranger’s grungy appearance, Jovanka lets him in. Denis, played with touching fragility by Daniel Serafini-Sauli, is unarmed, injured, undernourished and on the run. Seeing that he is far more vulnerable than she is, Jovanka hides Denis from neighborhood tough Milenko (Gillette) and helps him to some food and drink. As the night wears on, Denis reveals the tragic events that drove him to abandon music and pick up a gun, and the ensuing disillusionment that led him to desert his militia.
In a pulse-quickening denouement, these narrative threads are woven together as the machinery of atrocity, inexorably set into motion, alters the destiny of all the characters. Each of them, even Zlata, remembers a happier past. Their behavior (Dragan strumming his firearm as if it were a guitar, for instance) offers occasional glimpses of the people they used to be, who stand out in tragic contrast to the war-weary automatons they’ve become. The most colorful arc belongs to Dragan, and Ballerini brings a potent physicality and affecting emotional presence to the role. Erica Schmidt’s assured direction helps weave the disparate plot elements into a cohesive whole. She is aided by Emily Rebholz’s costume design, Laura Jellinek’s set, and Lily Fairbanks’s props, whose meticulous attention to detail grounds the story in a specific time and place.
Written by Stefanie Zadravec, Directed by Erica Schmidt, Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200