Zig and Alex salute Rose in "The Tender Mercies"

Live theater aims for two things: truth and intensity. Oftentimes they are in a zero-sum relationship to one another. That is, the more you have of one, the less you can have of the other. On one hand, truth commonly understood is elusive, messy, and boring. Reading a thousand cotton-mouthed books might get you close to understanding why your pension is still in peril. Intensity, on the other hand, is crack cocaine or sugar coated choco-bombs: full of immediate high, it can’t be weighed down by buzz killing substances like facts. Take, for example, any speech by Sarah Palin. Occasionally, however, a play can convey a great truth and be intense at the same time. That is most definitely the case with The Tender Mercies playing this week at the Teatro Círculo on East 4th Street.

The action is set in a single room in a detention center somewhere in a civil war zone. In the first scene an interrogator, Zig, is rehearsing Alex, a detainee, for his confession. The interrogator is cruel, and the audience cringes as the detainee’s humanity is stripped away. Zig makes Alex renounce his parents as morally corrupt perverts. Then Alex has to confess that he enjoyed the most depraved acts of incest with his sister.

The second scene is in the same room in the detention center, but now Zig is being interrogated by Rose, the female warden of the prison. It turns out that Zig is also a prisoner, and the audience cringes a second time to see his bluster evaporate like morning dew in the hot sun of the prison warden’s chummy confidence. As he cringes and tries to reassure her he’s a friend, not an enemy, she expresses her confidence that he will do the right thing, and get a good confession from Alex.

In the third scene we find out that Zig and Alex go way back. On the outside Alex was the boss, the scion of an old, prestigious, small town family, and Zig was Alex’s henchman in their local black market syndicate. Alex is on the recieving end of all the violence because he and his kind were the overlords for generations past, the upstanding, right thinking citizens who forced Rose and her kind to live in ghettoes. When the war broke out Alex and his kind tried to exterminate Rose and her people. Now the jackboot is on the other foot.

The text of the play is enough to draw you to the theater. The playwright, Sladjana Vujovic, is a Montenegran of the generation who grew up in communism and watched in horror as the fracturing of Yugoslavia led to civil war and its well documented atrocities. Though Ms. Vujovic makes clear that this scene could take place in any prison under similar circumstances (e.g. Abu Ghraib), to fully understand the complexity and power of this story, the viewer needs to understand that the Montenegrans were on the Serb’s side of the conflict and that the playwright is a woman. Rose, the prison warden, played with convincing schizophrenia by Christina Bennet Lind, hints darkly at what she suffered at the hands of Alex and Zig’s people. It is impossible not to see in Rose’s unholy righteousness the accusations of mass rape against the Serbs. Rose is motivated by total revenge, a revenge so pure in its singlemindedness that she is able to unblinkingly confess murder to Zig and expect his sympathy. She tells him that she slit the throat of a six-year-old girl before murdering her whole family because the girl reminded Rose of her own daughter, who, she hints, was the product of rape.

The profound power of this drama comes from the infinitely complex, yet specific ways several interlocking, racially conceived, and geographically bounded identities created total war and perfect chaos in the Balkans. Other wars have easily recognizable bad guys: Nazis, communists, and religious zealots imagine themselves initially as agents of renewal for a decadent civilization but end up committing attrocities. But as Charles Simic has shown in many essays (check out this one) for The New York Review of Books, in the Balkans centuries — millennia — of hatreds and feuds created the perfect conditions for a tragedy of incomprehensible scope. Rose (and her people) are so consumed by hate that they need to destroy their enemy more thoroughly than a human being can imagine. You can only shoot someone once. You can kill them all and sow salt in the ruins of their towns. But to execute the asymmetrical purity of Justice, you have to break their minds and then break their hearts. You have to make them hate themselves and love their judges. Like in a novel by Ismail Kadare, the ultimate goal of those in power is to demonstrate their power by exacting the willing, loving obedience of their slaves.

Jessi D. Hill has done a wonderful job directing Jim Kane, Christina Bennett Lind, and Gregory Waller as Alex, Rose, and Zig, respectively. The action is paced to perfection, each second leading inevitably to the next. The tension steadily rises throughout to an explosive climax (literally — my ears were ringing) that left one woman sitting in a row behind me in tears. In true tragic form, none of the characters are left whole at the end of the play, and yet the ending feels like fate, as if we have witnessed the true horror of the human condition, as Rose says, unfolding in the drama of history.

The Tender Mercies is only playing through the end of the week. If you want to catch it, catch it now!

The Tender Mercies
Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. through May 1st
Teatro Círculo 64 E. 4th St.