[This is the expanded version of the post that just went up on Show Business Weekly.]
Two unnamed nations, in an unspecified time and at an uncertain place, are at war. Praxis (Melissa Friedman) is fast becoming the queen of a wasteland that is relentlessly under siege, and so she places her trust and her armies in the hands of a genius, Riddler (Kathleen Chalfant). Riddler delights in the task, finding a perverse but logical pleasure in outwitting the savages at the gates and in knowing that she is saving her whimpering son, the comically named Atilla (James Wallert), from certain death in the army. But her methods are ruthless, calling for such self-mutilating sacrifice, that she might as well be the enemy, a thought that prompts Praxis to mournfully rue her decision: "There are deaths and deaths..." So too, there are plays and then there are plays, and this magnificently perceptive look at what protecting the hearts (of our nation and of our selves) takes: that's a real play.
Howard Barker, who wrote the play in 1992, is much like Riddler: his genius writing seems to take real pleasure in running paces around its own character and running logic and politics to their bitter conclusion, yet he also finds the humanity in every character, from the muted general, Plevna (Dion Graham) to Seemore (Thom Sesma), a man insanely infatuated with Riddler's calm poise and perfect genius. Barker can just as easily play in the subtle ruination of war (like Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book) as he can draw parallels between the way madness manifests itself: in Riddler's case as a pent-up and focused talent that allows her to remain aloof enough to spend human lives like inflated currency, in Seemore's case as an unleashed and erratic emotion that violently flows out of him into the absolute valuation of a single human life.
Barker is not an easy playwright to perform (he calls his own theatrical style Catastrophism; the company that most frequently performs him is known as The Wrestling School). His sentences don't just run on, they run through themselves, constantly attacking themselves with sudden realizations, as when a flustered Atilla blurts out "The collar and the cuffs You are thriving on this siege and I am not so nicely stitched . . ." All the actors nail the intricacies of such text, especially Friedman, who carries herself with all the poise, grace, flair, and wit of some famous Spanish queen, only to constantly be surprised by the whispering voice of her own heart, a heart which must suddenly be heard.
A Hard Heart is not at all a hard play to highly recommend: its heroes may find only tragedy in triumph, but this remarkable ensemble will find only success in their nightly suffering.