Pictured: (l-r) Ashley Agbay and Brittany Burch. Photo by Claire Demos.
Review: UNSEEN at The Gift Theatre
By Elizabeth Ellis
Throughout our lives, when faced with a moment that is sure to produce pain, we often hear these words in an attempt to offer protection: “Don’t look and it won’t hurt.” If we don’t look, we avoid discomfort, shame, embarrassment, heartbreak, humiliation. However, if we choose not to look, we won’t develop the ability to handle all those difficult moments. This choice can only stunt us in our personal emotional development, and our capacity to show empathy to others.
This theme of whether or not to look, and feel, runs throughout Mona Mansour’s moody and affecting play, UNSEEN. As UNSEEN opens, war photographer Mia, portrayed with haunting intensity by Brittany Burch, awakens in the Istanbul home of her occasional girlfriend, Derya, the strong and loving, yet conflicted, Ashley Agbay. Mia was discovered lying unconscious among bodies in a massacre she was photographing in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. While she has no recollection of how she ended up lying amidst the dead, Mia learns that she wired photos of the carnage to her editor. As Mia attempts to piece together memories of the recent events, she experiences flashbacks from PTSD that completely unnerve her. With the help of Derya and a visit from her mother Jane, played by the wonderfully engaging Alexandra Main, Mia realizes that in order to heal, she has to face the pain she has been suppressing for so long in order to perform her work.
Maureen Payne-Hahner’s sensitive yet unflinching direction keeps the tensions between the actors high, but never loses sight of the care and love beneath the arguments, trauma, and upset. Brock Alter’s excellent projections transport the audience from watching a child playing on a tank to Mia’s text messages to the Hagia Sophia. The projections also show how the flashes of a camera taking pictures and the attendant shutter clicks eerily mimic the sight and sound of gunfire. Sarah Watkins’ set provides the warm intimacy of Derya’s home yet easily uses the narrow Gift space to suggest a bar, an art gallery, and a combat zone.
What becomes apparent as you watch UNSEEN is the sense of invisibility, of literally being unseen, that those involved in global conflicts often adopt. They are simply performing their jobs, and try to get in and get out as quickly as possible with the least personal investment. However, when documenting the worst of what humanity can do to each other, it is nearly impossible to return home unscathed. UNSEEN shows us that despite the best efforts to the contrary, no one can escape their own humanity, and to embrace it takes great courage, strength, and grace.