How much of a barrier can a few dozen millimeters of plastic, glass, and metal provide between the atrocities of war and one’s well-being? In Unseen, enjoying its DC premiere in a Mosaic Theatre production at Atlas Performing Arts Center, playwright Mona Mansour implores us to consider the photographer’s role in capturing the events that we sometimes find too difficult to look at.
Unseen tells the story of Mia (Katie Kleiger), a conflict photojournalist who suddenly awakes in her ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Istanbul. She has no recollection of the preceding days on assignment in Syria and finds herself without the camera that may hold the key to unlock her memory. Over the course of several days, she spars with her ex-girlfriend Derya (Dina Soltan) and her mother, Jane (Emily Townley), recounting past encounters with photographic subjects (played by Soltan and Townley) and grappling with the gruesome journalistic responsibility to pursue the story regardless of the atrocities one may encounter in the process.
Though Mansour’s play takes place in 2015, and its flashback scenes date as early as the mid-2000s, it feels remarkably timely. After nearly a decade of politically motivated accusations that the press is the enemy of the people, not to mention the arrest of a Wall Street Journal reporter in Russia on charges of espionage last week, this play centering the experience of a journalist who accepts the responsibility to witness the human costs of war is especially poignant. The unbearable call to look at the horrors of the world serves as both a throughline and a linchpin in the play.
In a striking early flashback scene, Mia, a newly-minted conflict photographer meets with a former photojournalist who has transitioned to editing due to an on-assignment knee injury that has stolen her essential ability to run. Mia asks what advice the editor has for early-career photographers. The editor, played wryly by Townley, discourages her from “looking” at the scenes she’s photographing, warning that if she looks too closely, her mental health will disintegrate. This haunting warning foreshadows a later revelation that sheds light on Mia’s unaccounted-for whereabouts.
But the most impactful scene of the play occurs in an art gallery in Philadelphia. Mia, champagne glass in hand, is enjoying an exhibition of her work when the mother of one of her displayed subjects approaches her. Initially unaware of the woman’s status as the mother of a dead soldier she once photographed, Mia asks if the woman would like an autograph. The mother (Townley, again, in a breathtaking turn) scolds Mia, whose photo of the soldier focuses on an insensitive tattoo, for being the arbiter of how the world would see her son in perpetuity. Desperate for closure, she asks (nearly begging) Mia if she stayed with him while he died, so he wasn’t alone. “They don’t tell you anything,” she broods, insisting that the military would prefer her to think, “he closed his eyes and went to sleep like a baby.” At once her adversary and her ally, Mia and her camera are the woman’s only window into the trauma her son endured in his final moments.
Though the play mostly succeeds in the large moments of thematic and emotional impact, and leaves its audiences with a great deal to consider, it sometimes struggles to humanize its main characters. The vignettes of past encounters add layers of meaning and understanding to the play, but the scenes in the apartment sometimes feel too swift and unfinished, preventing the audience from fully connecting with Mia in particular. In moments of anger between Derya and Mia, or their failed forays into intimacy, the writing feels most rushed. In one moment, when Mia admonishes her mother for suggesting she return to San Francisco, criticizing the desires of some Americans to enjoy relaxed afternoons with family and shop at Costco, her mother sharply retorts that lives filled with familial afternoons and grocery shopping are no less authentic than Mia’s. This moment is a startling rebuke of Mia’s cynicism, and one from which we never recover. Mansour has developed characters who are deserving of more time to blossom before the audience.
Even so, Kleiger, Soltan, and Townley portray all of the play’s characters with aplomb. Kleiger precisely transitions between nonlinear vignettes, allowing the audience to track the toll that Mia’s work has taken on her body and spirit. Soltan is most effective as a teacher in Gaza whose classroom is continually destroyed by artillery fire. And Townley, who is tasked with playing the mothers and other experienced women in the play, never once relegates her characters to tired stereotypes. Instead, she gives each of her characters, no matter the size, tremendous depth and delivers a moving and uniformly excellent performance.
Under Johanna Gruenhut’s direction, Unseen intimately draws its audience closer, while never relinquishing a consistent undercurrent of distress marked by periodic camera flashes (lighting design by Jesse Belsky) and sounds of war (sound design by Matthew M. Nielson). Emily Lotz’s warm apartment set, with a leafless tree snaking through the empty space and intricate calligraphic prayers hung on its wall, inspires feelings of refuge and safety throughout the play. Even when the characters are arguing, or furniture is strewn about to denote when we are with Mia in the field, it feels like home base, somewhere to which we will safely return. Transitions to those flashbacks are supported by lush, evocative projections from Mona Kasra.
“DC is filled with people who do the work that Mia does, or they edit the work that Mia does, or they deal with these parts of the world, whether they are human rights lawyers or work for NGOs,” Mansour writes in the show’s program. Despite its occasional challenges, Unseen is a work that should be of great interest to the region’s more politically inclined set. Even in its specificity, centering on one woman who does a job that so few do, the play brims with relatability for anyone who dares to do work that challenges them, but nourishes their soul. In Mansour’s quest to reconcile fulfillment, responsibility, and enervation, perhaps we each have something to learn.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes without an intermission.
Unseen plays through April 23, 2023, presented by Mosaic Theater Company performing in the Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington DC. For tickets ($29–$64), call the box office at 202-399-6764, or go online. Rush, student, senior, military, and First Responder discounts are available at mosaictheatre.org.
The program for Unseen is available here.
COVID Safety: Face masks are required at all times for all patrons, visitors, and staff regardless of vaccination status in all indoor spaces in the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Masks may be briefly removed when actively eating or drinking in designated areas. See Atlas’ complete COVID policy here.
Mona Mansour on humor, loss, and not seeing in ‘Unseen’ at Mosaic (interview by Ravelle Brickman, March 25, 2023)