Look beyond the politics espoused in the fact-based one-woman drama My Name Is Rachel Corrie, currently onstage at Second Thought Theatre at Bryant Hall. They're dicey and have drawn controversy since the play debuted in London in 2005.
Rachel Corrie, raised in a comfortable home in the Pacific Northwest, dropped out of college and became a pro-Palestinian peace activist. She traveled to Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement and died in 2003 acting as a human shield as an Israeli bulldozer rolled over her to demolish a Palestinian home.
The 90-minute play was cobbled together by actor Alan Rickman and British newspaper editor Katherine Viner from Corrie's journals and emails. The audience meets Corrie, played at Second Thought by the marvelous Dallas actress Barrett Nash, as she's packing her duffle bag to leave for the Middle East. She's naive, a bit silly, but warm and engaging as she dashes around her bohemian bedroom. "My mother would never admit it," she says in the play, "but she wanted me exactly how I turned out — scattered and deviant and too loud."
Later on, in front of a broken cinderblock wall, she relates how she's bonded with the residents of Gaza, Muslim families who insist they want peace. That's where the play feels like awkward agitprop as Corrie goes on about how she views the Palestinians as engaging in "Gandhian nonviolent resistance" against Israeli oppressors. We don't hear about homes in Gaza being used to smuggle weapons, hide rocket launchers and stockpile explosives meant to be fired at Israel.
Rickman and Viner insist that the play's politics are meant to be invisible. They've said they intended My Name Is Rachel Corrie to be a "complicated look at a woman who was neither a saint nor a traitor."
That's how Second Thought director Clay Wheeler and actress Nash present it, too. Their production does not feel polemical. It feels passionate. (Their latest staging restores about half an hour of material cut for last summer's performance of the play by this same company at the Festival of Independent Theatres.)
Nash's acting — antic, highly physical, deeply emotional — brings clarity and likability to the story arc of a young woman navigating her way from a sheltered youth into some jarring realities of a world beyond Olympia, Washington. One minute Corrie is making a list of the people she'd like "to hang out with in eternity" (Rilke, Jesus, e.e. cummings, Charlie Chaplin), the next she's complaining about her "neo-liberal" father and the worried mom she doesn't call often enough. As she gets deeper into the issues in Gaza, she grows angry and frustrated. She begins questioning her own "fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature."
It's an exuberant play and a tragedy. We like Nash's Rachel Corrie. We are sad to find out Rachel died at 23. The end of this production has an especially gut-wrenching moment featuring the real Rachel on video as a child making a speech about ending world hunger. Whatever her politics and whether she was on the right or wrong side when she was killed, the play depicts her as someone with a strong desire to find her purpose and maybe help others find theirs. And isn't the theater always a good place to start those conversations?