Intelligence, at Arena Stage through April 9, is historical fiction – heavy on the history (sort of) and light on the fiction. The story clings to a struggling marriage between two people working under the federal government’s umbrella, while the government does everything in its power to protect itself and its decision-making (surprise!) Despite this callback to real-time events, the story’s fictional characters provide life, and the size of their parts will likely leave audiences wondering why they didn’t receive more of the spotlight.
The play, penned by Jacqueline E. Lawton, and directed by Daniella Topol, takes a look at the story of CIA operative Valerie Plame (played by Hannah Yelland) and her husband Joseph Wilson (played by Lawrence Redmond). The latter famously embarked on a fact-finding mission, sponsored by the CIA, in an attempt to investigate the claims that Saddam Hussein had acquired uranium yellowcake. Once he found no evidence, he went public and questioned the legitimacy of then President George W. Bush’s speech including the implication that the dictator had indeed acquired weapons of mass destruction. In retaliation, Plame was outed by superiors in a column; her cover blown.
Aside from revisiting this famous scandal, the play addresses the lack of trust simmering at the tumultuous time period, sparked by the rise of terrorism after 9/11. Lawton’s fictionalized account of these events include the made-up characters Dr. Malik Nazari (played by Ethan Novia), a former Iraqi chemical weapons expert, and his niece Leyla Nazari (played by Nora Achrati). This duo acts as the vehicle for much of the drama when the scientist searches for proof of Hussein’s WMDs, returning to the country he believed he’d left for good. Dr. Nazari embarks on this expedition because his niece was coerced into the role of liaison between Plame and her uncle, and is largely left alone to worry about the outcome afterward.
Apart from the scenes where the plan for Dr. Nazari is being outlined, there isn’t much emotion displayed in dialogue. In fact, much of the back and forth between Plame and Wilson is exposition for the audience. There is the occasional marital argument, but these verbal acrobatics are lost in the backdrop of the Nazaris’ actions.
With only a little stage time, the Nazaris carry a tremendous amount of responsibility in making the audience feel the weight of the situation – the doctor for his courageous nosedive into danger in search for definitive proof, and Leyla for being the only representation of a character with real stakes. Though Plame is rendered jobless by history, and Wilson risked his reputation and marriage, they’re absent from the front line together, away from the bombs and bullets.
Meanwhile, Misha Kachman’s set provides an intriguing minimalist appeal, as each locale contains only a few specific pieces. In between the stage’s shifts, video of archived speeches from Bush and his administration are projected to the wall serving a reminder that the U.S. never got the proof of Hussein’s WMDs, causing the audience to ponder the question, “Could this have all been avoided?”
Intelligence serves as a reminder that for every true event like Plame and Wilson’s in the history books, there is one such as the fictitious Nazaris’ lost in the shuffle. And though the play tries to reflect this, their tale is still buried too far beneath the recount of the stateside married couple.
Intelligence runs through April 9, and is playing at Arena Stage’s Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle. For more information or tickets for a showing, visit the Arena Stage website.
Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org