Timeline Theatre’s production of J.T. Rogers’s Blood and Gifts is a stunning account of the international forces that shaped Afghanistan from 1981-91. The play takes on both the personal and the political, spinning a web of friendships and strategy in which we can never be sure whom we can trust.
We are first introduced to James Warnock (Timothy Edward Kane), a tightly-wound American operative, as he lands in Pakistan. Warnock begins by trying to identify friendly Afghans in the refugee camps of Pakistan, then starts supplying medical supplies and cash, and finally secretly ships the weapons that will support a full-blown proxy war against the Soviet Union. Since United States personnel are not allowed to operate in Afghanistan, it is impossible for them to monitor in whose hands those weapons ultimately end up whether they are even used against the intended targets. Warnock believes that this arrangement will benefit United States interests, but is shocked when it ultimately backfires.
Warnock pins his hopes on the charismatic Abdulla Khan, (Kareem Bandealy), an Afghan leader exiled in Pakistan who will be his “eyes and ears” in Afghanistan, and eventually, the recipient of Warnock’s unlikely friendship. Similar grudging friendships develop between Warnock and British operative Simon Craig (Raymond Fox), and Dimitri Gomov (Terry Hamilton), providing several genuinely funny moments and a window into the personal lives of these spies.
At the heart of this play is the uneasy coexistence of “secrets” and “truth.” As the Soviet war in Afghanistan becomes increasingly violent, we wonder whether common interest can overcome cultural suspicion and whether the bonds of friendship require one to tell the truth. We see secrets that bind characters together just as often as they drive them apart.
The calculated lies and strategic half-confidences that are a necessity for work in intelligence gathering and covert warfare slowly infect each character’s relationship with his wife and children. We see each man struggle with whether blood (relations or shared cultural history) is sufficient to tie people together, whether children are gifts or burdens, and whether broken bonds can ever be repaired. The final scene of the play is breathtaking, moving from touching to terrifying in a matter of moments, in a way that manages to feel both shocking and inevitable all at the same time.
The set design perfectly complements this remarkable production. To reach their seats, audience members must pass through several open offices full of charts, photos, and files. The audience is encouraged to explore these spaces and open drawers and magazines, to look for the answers that prove so elusive for the spies in this play.
Though it contains many very funny moments, this story is a difficult one. Yet, it is one that should be required viewing for those who seek to understand how the United States ended up in its long war in Afghanistan. Indeed, the scenes in which Warnock meets with Colonel Afridi (Anish Jethmalani), head of the ISI Pakistani security forces, are saturated with mutual distrust. One wonders if after Osama Bin Laden was discovered living in Pakistan and given the present controversy surrounding US drone strikes, anything at all has changed between these so-called allies.
Blood and Gifts is highly recommended. Blood and Gifts is at the Timeline Theatre (615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago) Wednesday through Sunday until July 28, with tickets at $32-42 depending on the night. Tickets are available by calling 773.281.8463 x6 or through Timeline’s website.