"If I lived in Bosnia or Rwanda or who knows where else, needless death wouldn't be a distant symbol to me, it wouldn't be a metaphor, it would be a reality." Rachel Corrie wrote these words just before leaving America for the Gaza Strip in January 2003. Little consensus exists about what happened less than two months later, but this much is indisputable: Needless death did, in fact, become a reality when she was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the demolition of a Palestinian home. She was 23 years old.
Her impassioned, truncated life is the subject of "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," a bracing new solo play that has reached New York after a regrettable delay. Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner have assembled Corrie's letters, e-mails, and journal entries into a vibrant if occasionally slack showcase for the superb actress Megan Dodds. The absence of contextualizing material may constrain its vision, but Mr. Rickman (who also directs) and Ms. Viner plunge us with empathic precision into the principled, vehement, exposed heart of a woman who left Olympia, Wash., "to witness how awful we can allow the world to be," and who never came back.
(The play was the source of considerable controversy earlier this year when New York Theatre Workshop either postponed or walked away — depending on whom one believes — from a planned production. NYTW, which has shown considerable political and aesthetic bravery in the past, and undoubtedly will again, handled the situation ineptly and received a deserved black eye from the artistic community. But the play is here now, in a separate commercial production.)
The authors devote the first third of the play to Corrie's restlessness and burgeoning activism in America before shifting to her work with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza. It is at this point that Hildegard Bechtler's brutally effective set shifts from Corrie's cluttered Olympia bedroom to a bombed-out, bullet-pocked, concrete structure, punctuated by Emma Laxton's unnerving soundscape of gunfire and droning helicopters.
A posted rule in Corrie's second-grade classroom left a lasting impression on her: "Everyone must feel safe." Of course, this concept, like so many others applied to the Middle East conflict, can be interpreted in diametrically opposed ways. Safe from the bulldozers or safe from the suicide bombers? Safe from the imposition of Israeli boundaries or safe from the potential eradication of said boundaries?
Corrie didn't have much use for this line of thinking; she repeatedly berates her mother for equating the two sides, going so far as to issue talking points for any media interviews. (One angle left underdeveloped by the authors in this production is the degree to which her affinity for the underdog was fueled by her relationship with her parents, particularly her mother, who sometimes seemed "so big she looms over everything.")
But even when two sides of a dispute are uneven, dialogue is unlikely to advance too far when one side goes underrepresented. And as Corrie displays early on when she grumbles about "business people munching oatbran muffins," evenhandedness wasn't her strongest suit. Words like "dignity" and "humanity" invariably accompany any discussion of the Palestinian families she encountered, while the Israeli Defense Force soldiers remain shadowy and nameless.
So we have a narrator capable of both wisdom and sanctimoniousness within the same journal entry, and sometimes within the same sentence. She's trusting, self-conscious, noble, and exasperating, and hopeful that a long string of defining moments await her in life. In other words, she'll look familiar to anyone who has ever met a 23-year-old, or who has ever been one.
This is no accident: Mr. Rickman and Ms. Viner have stated their wish to deflate this much-debated figure — martyr, dupe, icon — to human size. Their Rachel gets awkward around her ex-boyfriend, who "pronounces his words like rubber bands stretched and snapping," and gazes nostalgically at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of an abandoned Gaza bedroom.
The creators are fortunate to have at their disposal Ms. Dodds, a coltish beauty whose imploring eyes and insistent, slightly guarded alto voice bring to mind a younger Laura Linney. She doesn't hesitate to give glimpses of the driven, sometimes melancholy crusader underneath Rachel's apple-cheeked affability, nor does she attempt to freight the performance with any sort of morbid presentiment. Ms. Dodds's Rachel simply moves from one flashpoint to another — a story about transporting the corpse of a Palestinian man is particularly harrowing — with the breathless urgency of someone who plans to look back and process everything later from a safe distance.
The trend in documentary theater in recent years has been to take a broader, more journalistic approach — to canvas the subject matter and present a mosaic of varying viewpoints in the hope that an objective truth might emerge. David Hare did just this in his own monodrama on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 1998's "Via Dolorosa," but that's not the case here. If Rachel Corrie didn't say it (or read it in the occasional e-mail from her parents), it's not in "My Name Is Rachel Corrie."
This decision could be viewed as blinkered given the murky circumstances, but I believe it is the right one here. No attempt is made to track down "the truth" in this young woman's sad death. We have only Corrie's truth, one that is sufficiently compelling to sidestep any broader, tougher questions about exactly what happened March 16, 2003, and why. (Since Corrie never had a chance to write about her last moments, an audio recording of an fellow ISM activist's eyewitness account is included at the end.)
The closest thing to a naysayer about her stay in Gaza is, of all people, Corrie's dad. Corrie seemed to do most of her corresponding via her mother, but Craig Corrie weighs in near the end with a loving, protective message. "I'm also proud of you — very proud," he said, but "I'd just as soon be proud of somebody else's daughter." Fifteen days later, Rachel Corrie became the spiritual daughter of many, many people. The tender and honorable "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" brings into sharp relief the source of such pride.
Until November 19 (18 Minetta Lane at Sixth Avenue, 212-307-4100).