Barrett Nash smiles, pleads, flirts, shouts, writhes, trembles and utterly seduces the audience in My Name is Rachel Corrie, a one-woman docu-drama based on American peace activist Rachel Corrie's extraordinary journals, letters and emails, and adapted for the stage by Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman. The play, directed by Clay Wheeler, opened at Second Thought Theatre on March 16, the 10th anniversary of Corrie's death in 2003 in the war torn Gaza Strip. The 23-year-old, part of a nonviolent action group supporting Palestinian rights, was crushed and killed when she stepped in front of an Israeli Defense Force bulldozer to prevent the demolition of a home owned by a Palestinian family who had become her friends.
Nash and Wheeler, reprising their shorter version of the work seen in 2012's Festival of Independent Theatres under the banner of Rite of Passage Theatre Co., have mounted the full work, which runs 90 minutes with no intermission—physically or emotionally. Incredibly, Nash holds us with her all the way as she embodies the words and spirit of the youthful American idealist who never saw a mean street in her sheltered existence in Olympia, Washington—but who is drawn by a deep-seated altruism to go to Jerusalem, not to tour the holy lands, but to travel southward to Rafah, a bitterly contested piece of real estate in the southern Gaza strip where she takes the part of the terrified Palestinian families.
Wheeler has pulled the 50 seats arranged arena style so close to the small staging area, you can literally see the perspiration gather on Nash's lip as she tells her story. A screen above the stage projects images supporting the narrative, from sunny school pix of Rachel to dark photos of war bombings. Nash begins with Rachel's girlhood fetish of cutting out fairy tale and mythological characters and gluing them onto her red bedroom wall, recreated here as the backdrop for the most of play. A wistful smile flickers across Nash's face as Rachel struggles from a nightmarish sleep. The playful, fantastic collages on the red wall "look more like carnage these days," she sighs. She tells us that in fifth grade she was filled with a wildly scattered array of ambitions, wanting to become everything from a "wandering poet to the President of the United States."
Round-faced and wide-eyed, her blonde locks flying across her face when she's excited, Nash is especially evocative as the 12-year-old Rachel, staring at her small, little girl hands, and remembering her experience as an exchange student in Russia during middle school. Surrounded by the revelation of a gorgeous Russian nature and a crumbling cityscape, she was shaken to the core. "I loved it. I was awake in Russia for the first time," she says. Nash, her face aglow with sweat, excitement and Ken Farnsworth's sensitive lighting design, springs onto her bed and declares she has always been given to "very important list-making." Ecstatically, she recites a list of people she wants to spend eternity with," which includes Rilke, Jesus, e. e. cummings and Charlie Chaplin.
As she moves through the landmarks of her short life—her girlhood crushes, her obsession with loving and pleasing her permissive and brilliant mother, her buoyancy when she hears from her adored father, her thrill when she becomes part of an activist movement at her hometown college—the personality that emerges is complex, sympathetic and bright with promise. Nash's Rachel is impulsive, ambitious, and deeply empathetic to the underdogs of the world. She arches her back seductively in her tank top as she recalls a riverside stroll with a man she longs for who persistently leaves her. Yet as she recalls the romantic moonlight, she is also aware of the salmon in the river beside her on their relentless suicide swim upstream. This girl is unerringly kind-hearted and sensitive, and she's clearly growing toward the fruition of her talents.
Ultimately Rachel decides she must act on her leftist sympathies, and she sets out for Rafah and her assignment with the International Solidarity Movement. In the sequences leading up to her fateful stand against the "fourth largest military establishment" in the world, Nash laces her boots and ties her hair back. The script is weakest in the attempts to summarily explain the Zionist and Palestinian politics of the Gaza conflict, but Nash works through this intelligently. The high moments of the closing scenes focus rather on Rachel's emails home describing the dignity and generosity of the Palestinian families who befriend her. They live in a state of constant fear of loss of home and life, but still maintain a garden with fresh garlic and herbs.
Her eyes reddened and choking back sobs, Nash's voice comes from deeper in her throat as she pleads with us to understand the atrocity of what she is witnessing. Only occasionally does fear creep into her voice, and she admits she might die here. When the possibility of death arises, she quietly swallows, acknowledges it along with other possibilities and pushes on. "Coming here is one of the better things I have ever done," she writes to her mother toward the end.
Regardless of your politics, don't miss Barrett Nash's brave and committed performance. She leaves it all on the stage—and leaves us to wonder what more Rachel Corrie might have done had she lived.