Blood and Gifts, La Jolla, Calif.

Written by:
Lynne Friedmann
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‘Blood and Gifts’

By J. T. Rogers
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien
La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, Calif.
June 12-July 8, 2012

“Blood and Gifts” tells of the secret spy war behind the official Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. Spanning a decade, the story takes place in the inhospitable mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., as it follows the story of fictional CIA operative Jim Warnock (played with appeal and sincerity by Kelly AuCoin).

No sooner does Jim set foot in Pakistan when he is spotted at the airport by his Soviet counterpart, the world-weary Dmitri Gromov (Triney Sandoval). Their banter quickly establishes that a momentous chess game has begun and Dmitri is already a move or two ahead.

Soon Jim and British MI6 operative Simon Craig (in a memorable, physical performance by Daniel Pearce) meet with cocksure Colonel Afridi (Amir Arison) of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency regarding the supply of weapons to Afghans fighting the Soviets over occupation of Afghanistan. Weapons are arriving covertly from around the globe, a fact that prompts the cynical Simon to quip: “My God, Russian soldiers being shot with Chinese bullets. Sometimes the world is so beautiful.”

But ISI insists on retaining control of the weapons supply and on backing a right-wing Islamist warlord in the struggle. Both Jim and Simon agree to the deal, but it leaves them uneasy. It also leaves Jim, for the remainder of the tale, as the purveyor of “gifts” in the form of obscene amounts of cash and more advanced weaponry.

The rules of the game dictate that Jim not set foot in Afghanistan, so he journeys to a refugee camp on the Pakistan side of the border to meet with a secular warlord Abdullah Kahn (played with affecting and commanding presence by Demosthenes Chrysan) and his Western music-loving, bodyguard-translator Saeed (Babak Tafti in an endearing performance). The stakes are high and tension crackles as trigger-happy guards repeatedly level rifles at Jim’s head with every innocent gesture or untoward movement he makes. The palms of my hands were sweating.

In subsequent meetings trust and respect develop as Jim learns the language and customs; taking time to discuss Abdullah’s son (“a gift from God”) as well as his own impending fatherhood.

Nevertheless, Jim covers his bets by making secret deals with both Abdullah and Saeed. In return for information on the situation in Afghanistan, young Saeed wants little more than the latest recordings by Duran Duran and Olivia Newton John. For Abdullah, his price is nothing less than American-built Stinger missiles.

Jim’s motivations for involvement in Afghan affairs are both political and personal. He previously was an operative in Iran, supporting the Shah, and harbors guilt about CIA “assets” left behind to suffer a murderous fate when the United States pulled out following the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Jim is determined not to abandon the Afghans, but ironically, he has all but abandoned his new wife back home by accepting a prolonged assignment in Pakistan. Fellow spies Simon and Dmitri have made similar sacrifices with their own families.

Jim returns to the States, where he arranges an appearance before an appropriations committee by Abdullah, whose speech (scripted by the CIA) impresses an influential U.S. senator, who moves through legislation securing funding and missiles for the cause.

Back in Pakistan, with the tide of war turning, Jim seeks to buy back the Stingers but learns Abdullah has sold the missiles to Iran and allied himself with Islamist extremists. Abdullah’s action is prompted, in part, by his grief over the loss of Saeed, killed in battle, who turns out to be the old man’s only son. How is it possible that the relationship remained a secret from Jim in the decade the men have known each other? “You never asked,” Abdullah says evenly.

The play ends with Abdullah prophetically warning that the Mujahadeen will defeat the Soviets, then “cross oceans” to spread Islamism.

“Blood and Gifts” is a complex and compelling drama with flashes of biting humor. Unless you were an international news junkie in the 1980s, you will benefit by reading the chronology and background notes contained in the printed program. You will be rewarded with a riveting tale, the repercussions of which continue to shape world events.

According to the play’s director Lucie Tiberghien, “We’re trying to present a story from the point of view of all the people involved — the American, the Russian, the Brit, the characters from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The ultimate goal is to show that there was no right or wrong, no good or bad people. To show how complicated the situation was and is still today.”

Set designer Kris Stone has placed the action in front of, and on top of, an imposing concrete back wall made to evoke a bustling airport terminal, the desolate Afghan hinterland, a drab CIA office, a Congressional hearing room, or a tony political fundraiser through subtle illumination by lighting designer Matthew Richards. On the stage floor are a series of glass panels with desert landscapes beneath. At times they come across as true-to-scale dioramas; at other times more like aerial depictions of a war zone.

Shahrokh Yadegari’s sound and original score adds musical texture through the right mix of haunting tribal melodies and American pop tunes. Dusty, lived-in Afghan robes in desert scenes contrast with precise tailoring when the action moves to Washington, D.C. In keeping with the ever-present theme of war, a deft touch by costume designer Charlotte Devaux is the use of blood-red color in a female staffer’s suit, agents’ neckties, and a partygoer’s festive ball gown.

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