The Underground Railway Theater (URT) will present Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner’s Homebody from April 20th through May 7th at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Set in London in 1998, the story revolves around a bored, lonely, and agoraphobic Englishwoman who finds solace in reading about a fantasy world—in this case, Afghanistan. Though Homebody debuted in December 2002, the play’s themes remain as relevant and thought-provoking as they were fifteen years ago.
URT co-founder Debra Wise appears onstage as the nameless protagonist, referred to only as Homebody, and says that the piece is a meditation on embracing the complexity of life, even though her character never leaves home. “She [the Homebody] fantasizes about life in Afghanistan. She improbably considers going there and acknowledges that such a trip would require wearing a burka and following Sharia law. Despite that, she connects to this faraway place, and embraces its differences,” Wise says.
The Homebody takes refuge in her books and magazines when the slings and arrows of everyday life become too overwhelming—sadly, she is alienated from her husband and daughter—but she revels in this world fashioned out of words and images. An encounter with a Muslim hat merchant who mysteriously lacks three fingers leads to the construction of an alternate reality, where the fantasy culminates with her making love to this unnamed haberdasher.
“The Homebody experiences a deep connection with the merchant by embracing the complexity of his life, and at the same time, the reality is that she doesn’t understand his life, nor will she ever. Yet she feels that, as she puts it, ‘The ocean is deep, and cold, and erasing, but how dreadful, really unforgiveable, to remain dry.’ I think that many of us feel that paradox, which we translate into our lives in some way or another.”
The timing of Homebody seems spot-on, given the current state of social and political events. “Even though Tony wrote this play with a specific conflict in mind [the U.S. bombing of terrorist camps in Afghanistan], when has anything that he has written ever become irrelevant?” she explains. “The world feels like an increasingly desperate place. Confusion, refugees, the fear of some people’s impulsive actions. Governments are trying to control economies, climate change, borders, and trying to exert control when those actions don’t always solve the underlying issues,” Wise believes. The play also focuses on a woman drawn inward, a prescient theme given the current backlash against social-media overshare and 24/7 interactions.
Wise is no stranger to tackling socially engaged works, having founded URT at her alma mater, Oberlin, in the mid-1970s to explore and discuss various aspects of American history. “We purposefully took the name Underground Railway Theater, a variation on the Underground Railroad, because URT has always strived to create and perform pieces that relate to the Underground Railroad.”
So, what does a story set in London with a matronly homebody have to do with the Underground Railroad?
“It’s metaphysical,” Wise explains. Whether it’s overcoming slavery or self-imposed exile, “It’s the act of trust that is fundamental to the impulse of having two groups of people who, by all accounts, are not supposed to communicate with each other, but somehow collaborate, and that interaction becomes life-changing.”
Wise’s driving force is to seek transformation and encourage open dialogue through her performances. After each showing of Homebody, audience members are invited to discuss the play over a glass of wine and share their experiences.
“At its best, I think theater is a safe place for dangerous conversations, allowing us to see the other side of the coin, and accept the discomfort that comes with it.”
Homebody runs from April 20th to May 7th at Central Square Theater.