In the Dairy Center's My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a peace activist's words live on

There's a period in women's lives — roughly the years between 18 and 24 — that strikes me as profoundly touching. During this time, young women are often filled with inchoate plans and longings, and they haven't yet figured out the distinction between possible and impossible. They're absolutely alive to the world, their minds open and thoughts fluid — vulnerable as baby animals, yet full of force and energy. Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer at the age of 23 while trying to protect a Palestinian home in Gaza, was all that: wistful, observant, silly, intense and dreamy. But she was no dope, no moony-eyed kid. Rachel was extraordinarily smart and talented, and a video clip of her at the age of eleven reading a poem she'd written about hunger attests to the devotion to social justice that fueled her brief life.

Since her death in 2003, Rachel has become a polarizing symbol, a figure far more rigid and less interesting than the breathing young woman who once thought she'd be either a poet or the first woman president. While many Palestinians see her as a martyr to their cause, right-wing Zionists have vilified her as an ignorant, narcissistic and easily manipulated child. Not content with this, they've attempted to stop productions of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, the play created from her journals, scraps of poetry and e-mails home by British actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner.

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My Name Is Rachel Corrie Presented by Theatre 13 through September 28, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 1-888-512-7469, www.theatre13.org.

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But Rachel Corrie had at her disposal the most powerful weapon there is — language — and wherever her words are spoken, they tend to take deep root. The opening night of Theatre 13's Rachel Corrie last week drew tears from audience members, and hushed silence.

In some respects, I preferred Countdown to Zero's version in Denver last year, particularly the beautiful simplicity of Julie Rada's performance. Charlotte Brecht Munn's Rachel Corrie is far more active. She flings herself about more, yells more often. Michael French's direction is troubling, too. Why does he have Rachel forever taking things out of her duffel bag and stuffing them back in? Why so little stillness, so few moments of silence? At one point, Munn delivers Rachel's thoughts on life and death — that the difference between them is only "a shrug" — while lying on her back and wriggling into a sleeping bag, making some of the words unintelligible. People in white keep walking on stage, their bare feet caressing the floor, to move furniture, represent other characters and at one point draw large sand circles, as if this were a modern dance performance or a meditation exercise.

But there's still strength in the production, and toward the end, the distractions recede. Once Munn stops fiddling with props and simply speaks Rachel's words with truth and passion, the result is stunning.

Rachel Corrie's mother, Cindy, was at the opening-night performance; either she or her husband has attended each production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Cindy's presence intensified everything we saw and heard. It was impossible not to wonder what she was thinking and feeling as Munn spoke Rachel's words — some of which are addressed directly to her parents.

After the production, Cindy spoke a little, thanking Munn and French. She told the audience that she sees a fragment of Rachel in every actress who portrays her. And she mentioned a patient Rachel had worked with while volunteering at a mental hospital. He attended the play in Seattle and "kept looking for Rachel, wanting to hear her voice." Cindy Corrie projects a gentle and non-confrontational warmth, but it's clear that her dedication to her daughter's cause is unswerving. She described what she herself had seen in Gaza, which she'd visited for the first time after Rachel's death: the rubble and destruction, the constant fear of death among the people. "Everyday survival there is an act of resistance," she said. "We need to pay more attention.... We have to take responsibility for our funding of this."

My Name Is Rachel Corrie is no ordinary theater piece. It is a paean to the power of words, a call to political awareness, an investigation of the complexity of the human heart, and an act of mourning for a bright, brave young spirit now forever lost to us.

 
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