Plucked from the morning papers and nightly news comes “The Room Where I Was Held” at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. The tense and chilling drama weaves ideas of family, politics, values, idealism, and life and death together in a story that twists and turns from ominous beginning to shocking conclusion.
Despite its lofty themes, the play is painfully real, true to life, and heartbreaking in its depiction of the hurt, destruction, and betrayal that can be wrought in the name of courage, commitment, and love. MJ Bruder Munafo directs, deftly supporting her talented and experienced cast in bringing to life four troubled, interconnected individuals struggling with dilemmas and demons.
David Zax, a prolific journalist, created “The Room Where I Was Held” as his NYU playwriting thesis. The taut topical drama has already won several awards and honors.
The scenario is all too familiar. A young American journalist working in Afghanistan, held hostage and tortured by the Taliban, has miraculously escaped his captors. Now he is safe at home, healing from his ordeal, protected and pampered by his parents.
The story brings tears to our eyes. We rejoice, imagine the family’s relief, the happy warmth that surrounds them.
But there is precious little rejoicing in this upscale Washington, D.C., home. Yes, Joshua Maccabee Salazar, a budding writer, is home, cosseted in his boyhood bedroom with games, family photos, and a stuffed tiger on the single bed.
Still, he is far from free. Both parents nervously watch his every move, alert to any extreme of emotion or thought. Although he appears unscathed, his mother Linda holds him to a rigid timeline devised with a psychiatrist. She carefully limits potential stressors, reminding him of his fragile state.
“I’m six weeks out, I’m doing fine!” protests Josh to her doting concern.
His father, Allan, played by an outstanding Jonathan Lipnick, while genial, affable, a solid paterfamilias, treats Josh with an ambiguous mixture of affection and disdain, especially when differences in their values arise.
Add a surprise visit from Hanny, an articulate and worldly young woman of Afghan heritage whom Josh knew in Kabul. Composed, polite, self-contained, and confident, her volatile, vibrant presence is a spark, threatening to combust the smoldering tensions and secrets that smother the household.
As Hanny, Mariam Habib is a brilliant blend of intellect and charm, mannerly with Linda and Allan, flirtatious, teasing, and intimate with Josh. They reminisce about Afghanistan, their days of inspiration, idealism, courage, and finally tragedy.
Hanny’s cousin, we learn, was captured with Josh. But he did not escape, and was killed, a tragic loss that haunts the pair.
“At least one of our heroes came home,” Hanny intones sadly, with an admiring glance at Josh.
The parents dread any suggestion Josh may want to return. They are obsessed with his new beard, to them a sign he is yearning to be back in the wartime fray.
Fantasies about the sweetness of homecoming, the pleasure the escaped hostage must feel at being safe and comfortable amid loving family, fly right out the window.
“We’re all fine,” blurts out Josh after one heated exchange.
“We’re not fine!” his father retorts.
Portraying Josh — “Joshy” to his parents, a nickname as demeaning as it is affectionate — Daniel Bailin captures perfectly the edgy, bristling, angst of youth, rejecting everything his father represents. Josh is offended by the opulent comforts of their home and lifestyle, protesting that all people matter, are equal, deserve the same things, and the rich are oppressors, obligated to help.
“How we raised a little Jewish saint I’ll never know,” mutters his dad, scuttling Josh’s high ideals.
Allan defends his choices. He tells Josh money “is complicated,” that he made a conscious decision to work hard and succeed for his family’s sake.
Josh cannot win his father’s praise for those things he is proud of — activist writing, bravery, resolve. Allan dismisses Josh’s courageous survival of the terrorist nightmare as “your silly adventure to Taliban country.”
Kippy Goldfarb’s Linda fairly glows with sunshine, the consummate protective mother. She wants to keep her family safe, happy, harmonious. No matter the pressures and fears, she is determined that everything be orderly and normal.
She bustles in her apron, sets the table, serves chocolate chip pancakes, jauntily calls out her standard greeting: “Is everything OK?”
Linda graciously compliments Hanny, urges her husband to relax and get sleep, makes vapid small talk to lighten the mood.
When ceremonial wine spills on their costly Oriental rug, she swoops in frantically with seltzer and rags, assuring everyone, “It’s just a rug.”
“Josh’s actions brought many casualties. I want to make sure one isn’t my family,” declares Linda, on constant patrol against any threat.
But there is no holding off the chaos that began when Josh left for Afghanistan, determined to report important stories and take the risks that would allow him to “become himself,” as he tells Hanny. To Hanny he is “Mac,” not “Josh,” suggesting how different he was in Afghanistan.
As the façade of orderly family life begins to crumble, Josh recites the details of his vaunted heroism. “I was about to escape. They put me in a car to move me … I ran!” As though rehearsed and memorized, the dramatic narrative seems to comfort and reassure him, remind him who he is.
The story is his rock, his talisman. He clings to it like the next escape he dreams of, that shining freedom when he can return to Afghanistan.
Hanny’s jarring discovery while searching for online news sets in motion a cascade of revelations threatening the already tenuous balance of the anguished household. Truths are questioned, assumptions challenged, beliefs upended. No one is left unscathed by the long reach of this family’s private war.
With its ever-building anxiety level and shape-shifting realities, the play will keep viewers on the edge of their seats, its troubling issues and confounding questions haunting them long after the last curtain call.
“The Room Where I Was Held” plays through Oct. 6 at the M.V. Playhouse. Visit mvplayhouse.org for schedule and tickets.