Homebody/Kabul is a large and raggedly ambitious work

The greatest strength of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul lies in the hour-long opening monologue, in which an eccentric British housewife, holding an outdated guidebook to Kabul, tries to get her arms around the great, rich, anguished and turbulent mystery that is Afghanistan. Surrounded by people of diverse cultures and religions, sequentially occupied, Kabul once served as a crossroads for the ancient world, with trade routes converging on it from the north, south, east and west.

The play, written and set in the late 1990s, premiered soon after 9/11, leading many to praise the playwright's prescience. But Kushner's real genius was to put his own thirst for understanding into the soul and body of his Englishwoman, who interweaves the book's plethora of facts with her interpretations and imaginings, ponders the passage of time (an important theme) and muses on her own safe life in London. She's an entirely original creation, this Homebody, self-absorbed but also insecure, questing and gentle, simultaneously unhappy and in love with the world, obsessed with words, which she sometimes uses wrongly and sometimes with new and startling accuracy — language being another of Kushner's major themes. Dee Covington gives an open and assured performance in the role, one of the evening's best.

The Homebody makes her pilgrimage to Kabul and vanishes: either torn to pieces as she wanders burqa-less and holding her guidebook, or having fallen in love with an Afghan man and decided to convert to Islam — the script suggests both. (Mythology is full of gods who are torn to pieces and regenerate, and I can't help thinking that either way, the Homebody becomes part of the land she loves.) By the time we learn all this, though, the play has turned prosaic. The Homebody's husband and daughter go to Afghanistan to find her, and now the focus is less on the country itself than on the haplessness of Westerners in a Middle East they have no real tools for understanding, despite England's colonial role. What a wretched pair they are. Husband Milton spends the entire visit in a hotel room, afraid of venturing out, though he does get to consort with one of the play's more interesting characters: Quango Twistleton, who loves P.G. Wodehouse — no accident, given his last name. A once idealistic British aid worker now dissolute and drug-addicted, Quango is found sniffing her panties by daughter Priscilla. How has the mighty British empire fallen! Michael Morgan is pretty terrific in this self-effacing role, and Eric Sandvold does well with Milton. As for Priscilla, she has two modes: angry or whining. Convinced her mother isn't dead, she goes racing in search of her, abusing people she finds insufficiently helpful, carelessly tossing off her burqa whenever she can — which, given her mother's possible fate, is unforgivably stupid. Jessica Robblee is a talented actress, but she has inexplicably chosen to make this girl, unpleasant as written, even more unpleasant to watch, with a twitchy, too-fast, one-note performance — except that at the very end, she shows some emotional colors I'd like to have seen far sooner. When Priscilla reveals a suicide attempt and an inadvertent abortion in a far-too-long scene with her father, I can't tell if Kushner intends to have us empathize with the family's dysfunction. It's never convincingly delineated, and could the delightful woman who began the evening have been so wretched a mother? Or are we to see Priscilla's traumas as puny set against the vast canvas of Afghan suffering?

That suffering becomes abundantly clear when Priscilla encounters Mahala, wife to the man the Homebody may be marrying, who wants to leave her husband and country for London. A lively, educated woman — given a wonderfully vivid performance by Karen Slack — Mahala is literally going mad, confined to her house, grieving for relatives lost in Clinton's 1998 bombing of Afghanistan. All of the Afghan characters in this strong production are well-played: a man, music-starved under Taliban rule, weeps when he listens to Sinatra on Priscilla's Walkman; a poet explains that he learned Esperanto in prison, where an old man told him it would become the universal language.

During the four hours the play took to wind to a close, I found myself alternately entranced, bored, annoyed and thoughtful — as good a response as any, I guess, to this large and raggedly ambitious work.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman