The story behind the play "Hostage" is incredible.
Back in 1979, Barbara Timm's son was a 19 year-old Marine guarding the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. When the Iranian revolution broke out he became the youngest of the American hostages. Barbara Timm was a remarried mom in Wisconsin whose son was trapped as a political pawn half a world away. When she read a letter from her son that sounded like he might be losing hope, she'd had enough. She had to see him. Against the objections of the State Department and even President Jimmy Carter, Barbara Timm got on a plane to Tehran. Once there, she somehow unbelievably managed to see her hostage-son for 45 minutes.
That's an amazing story.
The play Michelle Kholos Brooks writes about that journey isn't quite that amazing.
The challenge with the play is structural. The first scene has us in that meeting between mother and son. As you can imagine, it's a tense, powerful scene. The Iranian student revolutionaries, or if you prefer terrorists, are watching over them - one with a machine gun at the ready. Her son’s hands are bound. She's in a foreign land just trying to hug her son.
If you're a parent - it's devastating.
Here's what's tricky. The very next scene, she's home in Wisconsin. Nothing against Wisconsin ... but it's not quite as dramatic as Tehran.
Ms. Timm didn't get to bring her son home. It would be more than a year before that happened - so the play finds itself looking for its core. It's not a play about "will he get released." It's not a play about "will she get to see him" - we've already answered that in the opening seconds. So you struggle, along with the playwright, to figure out what the question is. At moments, it seems to be about when a traitor is really a true patriot. At other moments it seems to be about whether she'll do a Walter Cronkite interview.
These questions aren't nearly as powerful as the force that drove a mother halfway around the world to make sure her son didn't lose hope.
By starting the play with mother and son together it robs the audience of the suspense of whether this meeting is going to even take place. By jumping directly from Tehran to Wisconsin for the next scene we miss what must have been an excruciating decision to leave Iran without her son. You're left feeling like the play sidesteps the inherent drama of the actual story.
The reason to see the play is Tracie Lockwood's performance as the mom. You have no problem believing that here's a woman who would move heaven and earth for her kids. She balances a midwestern mom's directness and pain with a fierce determination.
"Hostage" doesn't quite live up to the actual events that inspired it, but if you're a parent it'll tug at your heart strings.
"Hostage" plays at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz through July 22nd.
For info on the show and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theatre newsletter, check out: kcrw.com/theatre. Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission.