What responsibilities does one person have to another? Does it matter if the other is one’s spouse or sister or simply a fellow human being, worlds away? Kevin Kostic’s new play, Passport—presented as part of the 2012 Baltimore Playwrights Festival—explores these and related questions, and for the most part earns its answers.
In December of 2007, following the re-election of president Mwai Kibaki, protests erupted throughout Kenya; supporters of challenger Raila Odinga—who had been leading in most polls—accused Kibaki and his party of election fraud. In some places, the protests became riots. Passport opens in the midst of rioting in Kisumu, a city on the easternmost shores of Lake Victoria, where looters and armed mobs roam the streets and Jeff, an American bureaucrat for an unnamed relief and development organization, huddles in his hotel room, singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in a futile attempt to calm his nerves.
Shouts outside his door force Jeff to act; before he can second-guess himself, he pulls two young women into the relative safety of his room. The women, Kioni and Louisa, are sisters and, in many respects, opposites: Kioni is fearful and apologetic, while Louisa—an ardent supporter of Odinga—rages at her would-be protectors. The scene shifts suddenly to Washington, DC; two months have passed, and Jeff is back home with his wife, Nancy, whom he refuses to tell what happened in Kenya. As Kostic cycles between Kisumu and Washington, he gradually fills in the pieces, not only to Jeff and Nancy’s growing disenchantment together but also to Jeff’s life-changing encounter with Kioni and Louisa.
Director Barry Feinstein keeps the emphasis on the characters’ emotional lives, and the actors are generally up to the challenge. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Mike Ware took over the role of Jeff less than a week before opening night, and he has done an admirable job not merely learning the part but bringing it fully to life. Ware is not an ideal choice for Jeff—Kostic wrote the role for a younger actor, and I struggled to accept the age gap between Ware and the excellent Claire Bowerman, who plays Nancy. But Ware clearly and movingly articulates Jeff’s ambivalence, both in his job and marriage, and he has established a natural rapport with his fellow actors.
Ama Brown makes a sympathetic Kioni, and Mahoghany Ayot Eerised finds tenderness and an unexpected naiveté beneath Louisa’s hardened exterior. Yet I wish that Feinstein and his actors had found a greater range of tones—all four characters begin and end most scenes in similarly heightened states; though the actors are convincing throughout, their performances, and the play as a whole, would benefit from more color—light, comic, even casual moments are still to be found amidst chaos. Bowerman in the first act and Eerised in the second come closest to this balance; we see hints of playfulness as Nancy attempts to coax Jeff from his self-imposed shell, and as Louisa allows herself to be charmed by the contents of a suitcase abandoned by someone fleeing the riots.
I also wish that Kostic had shown us more of Jeff’s work—not simply his frustration with the red tape, dead ends, and corruption, but the small victories as well, and the nitty-gritty that once gave him satisfaction. Late in the play, Nancy offers a poignant account of the pleasure Jeff takes in solving a problem, one manageable step at a time. “I’m a development geek—it’s what I know,” he replies, smiling at last. More such smiles, however scattered and brief, would have made Jeff’s despair—and ultimate redemption—more compelling.
The lighting, designed by Charles Danforth III, is kept simple, as is the set—a few tables and chairs frame David Cunningham’s vivid mural of rioters, whose presence in the background of each scene subtly undermines the characters’ attempts to impose order on their respective worlds. Jack Reybold’s sound design likewise features rioting mobs, though only at intervals; a steadier undercurrent of noise might have been an interesting choice, though it might also have grown tiresome. As Kostic dramatizes in his play, the most satisfying moments are rarely the sweeping changes; more often, they happen when two people—whether intimates or strangers—find common ground.