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Daniel Henning on “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them” at the Blank

March 3, 2010

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the big guy in Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is based on Dick Cheney. Remember him? His accomplice in the shadow government is based on Harriett Miers. Not ringing a bell? A quick Google search will inform.

Is the title a non-sequitur? “Yes,” says Director Daniel Henning (left). “And no. It’s an absurdist statement about those who create terror, but it’s also not so absurd when you think about the last several years.”

This really isn’t a spoiler alert: The father, Leonard (played by Mike Genovese), is a staunch conservative who tortures someone in his New Jersey home whom he believes to be a terrorist. Why? Because he loves his daughter, despite her liberal bent, and aims to protect her from the man she married while in a drunken stupor. Whether she needs protection is another matter.

Leonard holds a gun to the head of Zamir, the suspected terrorist (played by Sunil Malhotra) and says to his wife:

LEONARD: I was just remembering that photo from the Vietnam war with the gun pointed at the head of that gook, right in the middle of the street. Do you remember that, Luella?

LUELLA: I remember the one of the poor little girl running naked down the street after she was hit by napalm.

LEONARD: Yes, that was a good one too. A lot of fine photos came out of the Vietnam war. 

“If there’s anyone who can write about insanity,” Henning says, “It’s Chris Durang. His characters are often insane.” Is that because Chris is crazy? Henning shakes his head. “It’s because Chris can look around the world and point to things that really are crazy and absurd. He sees them so clearly.”

So how does Henning, as the show’s director, get actors to that point of almost no return? “We had to walk right up to that line,” he says. “Get to the point where something is absolutely outrageous, and to get the audience to laugh at the dad, for example, when he says something so utterly contemptible.”

Is Henning interested in finding the comedy? “Only the truth.” How? Henning considers. “We went really deep into a discussion about the play, the words, the situations. It’s akin to what we’re doing for See What I Wanna See, our upcoming musical. By the time we start rehearsals, everyone’s going to know the songs. We’ll put them aside and focus on the script itself. Get into the words. Once we figure that out, we’ll go back to the music.”

Running through my mind was a recent conversation with Jamie Wollrab and John Markland at Moth Theatre. We had talked about “unblocking” a play – approaching it from a place of actors developing their characters based on dreams they’d experienced. I asked Henning how that struck him.

“I haven’t seen their work,” he said. “So I don’t want to comment specifically on what they do. In the end, though, I think constantly about the audience, from script to show – the whole process. So I want to give them something more valuable than the time and money they give me.” He sat for a moment, and then added, “Otherwise I can’t ask them for $25.”

Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them continues its West Coast premiere at Noah Wyle’s The Blank Theatre until March 14. Next up is the musical, See What I Wanna See. Casting will be announced later this week. The Blank is in its 19th season.

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