While illuminating the complexity beneath the Soviet-Afghan war, J.T. Rogers’ Blood and Gifts also places the wrongheaded conflict in a human context. The play, making its West Coast premiere at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, is a spy story with a soul. James (Kelly AuCoin), an operative from the United States, which is secretly funding the Afghan response, is in the crosshairs of the Middle Eastern intrigue. So are his British counterpart, Simon (Daniel Pearce), Russian agent Dmitri (Triney Sandoval) and Khan (Demosthenes Chrysan), an Afghan chieftain. Owing to the eloquence of Rogers’ script and taut direction by Lucie Tiberghien, these four are not mere white hats or black hats. They are men of strengths and frailties, foes by sociopolitical definition who care about their causes but also about each other in a way that makes each a sympathetic figure.
Blood and Gifts’ riveting story is enhanced by Kris Stone’s dramatic but understated scenic design. Matt Richards’ evocative lighting contrasts shadowy, wartorn Afghanistan with ivory tower Washington, D.C. Among a stellar cast, Pearce and Sandoval soar as American James’ counterparts inside Afghanistan, while the stentorian Chrysan is able to bring moments of tenderness to the role of warlord Khan.
The haunting resolution of Blood and Gifts, foreshadowing events pre- and post-9/11, will reside in you – and trouble your heart.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.