I went to Blood and Gifts with all the enthusiasm of a conscripted soldier. I wasn't in a big hurry to return to the locale I'd last visited in Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, one of the most excruciating evenings I've spent in the theater. And honestly after 10 years of war I'm a lot less interested in how or why we got into Afghanistan than I am in when the hell we're going to get out of there.
So it's all the more to the credit of author J.T.Rogers and TimeLine Theatre that I found its Chicago premiere production of Blood and Gifts utterly riveting. Though the company's explanatory lobby display is for a change more confusing than helpful, Nick Bowling's production is crystalline.
In an ensemble without a weak link, first among equals is Timothy Edward Kane (Court Theatre's extraordinary one-man An Iliad) as protagonist James Warnock, CIA station chief in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Kane's disciplined and deliberately low-key performance provides exactly the contrast necessary to make us care about an environment which otherwise features constant screaming.
Playwright Rogers has chosen to address his sprawling topic through the lens of fatherhood; and in portraying a patriarchal society it's the perfect choice. As alliances constantly shift and reform, the four central characters (an Englishman, a Russian and an Afghan along with the American) are able to connect as human beings only through common and yet varied experiences with their children. This is no easy feat as the American promises the Afghan (Kareem Bandealy) things he can't deliver, the Russian (Terry Hamilton) tries to end a war the American prefers to continue, the Englishman (a splendidly loose and funny Raymond Fox) tries to play "The Great Game" as if the Empire's sun had never set, and the Afghan tries to navigate (and manipulate) all these outsiders for the benefit of his clan and country. The paternal through-line makes the play as affecting as it is intellectually engaging, without descending to sentimentality.
The fluidity of the ensemble is all the more remarkable given the number of actors making their TimeLine debuts, including Kane, Fox, Bandealy and Anish Jethmalani as the Pakistani colonel who plays all ends against the middle. A company clearly has forged an unshakeable identity when it can bring in newcomers while maintaining the same quality and feel, and in this TimeLine is equaled perhaps only by Steppenwolf and Chicago Shakespeare.
The performers are well supported by Collette Pollard's flexible set design, Jesse Klug's lighting and the projections created by Mike Tutaj, who so far as I can tell has never put a foot wrong with video or slides.
The good news is that Blood and Gifts is an intimate show staged in TimeLine's home space, the church on Wellington just west of Broadway. The bad news is that the intimacy restricts the number of people who will get to experience the work. Happily, Blood and Gifts is scheduled to play through July: get there before the summer slips away.