Strawdog’s ‘Damascus’ an unnerving, timely thriller

The situation: two strangers on an impromptu road trip for six hours through the cold, snowy night – what could go wrong?

Evidently, a lot.

What begins as a standard thriller reminiscent of a Jo Nesbo novel or FX’s anthology series Fargo evolves into a truly unnerving, utterly American thriller. What you think will happen in Damascus informs only a shade of what is to come.

Hassan (portrayed with magnetic restraint by Terence Sims) is a shuttle bus driver trapped in a power struggle with his vehicle that has become both home and work. He cannot make the same money he used to because of the rise of ride-sharing services, so he has to occasionally sleep in the backseat. Whatever money he does make goes right back into maintaining the truck. He is caught in a fight that, under present circumstances, he cannot win.

Enter Lloyd, a frantic teenager whose wild, intense demeanor hints that he is running away from something terrible. He offers something Hassan cannot refuse – a week’s worth of pay to drive him to Chicago, he says, to get on a plane to see his sick mother in California. Fate and premonition bring the two together. A voice on the radio asks you to call in for your chance to win. Lloyd, an unstable presence in the backseat, seems to know everything about Lloyd before they even get on the highway. What is the worst that can happen?

The events of Damascus happen almost exclusively in Hassan’s truck (theatrically presented as a cross section designed by Jeff Kmiec), but the surrounding world plays a more critical role. The world in 2018 is one plagued by terror, and terror by design is a random creator of chaos. The world, fundamentally, is an unsafe space.

Understanding that reality can send a person on diametrically different paths. You could, for example, combat terror through advocacy and resistance (the Parkland kids), or you could take a path like Lloyd’s – become a catatonically delusional soldier who believes the only way to save the world is to destroy it, using the vitriol spewed by actor Eleni Pappageorge’s rotating cast of barely-closeted bigots as motive.

Despite being named after the capital of Syria, Damascus seems concerned specifically with the ways in which justice and terror warp the American consciousness. America, as an entity and an idea, desires dominance in every realm. America may not lead the world in anything that benefits society, but it has cultivated a lethal force upon the world that has gone unchecked for centuries: violently angry, entitled white men.

The dimensions built upon the white male-ness of Lloyd, and the fact that none of it comes off as melodramatic or painfully on the current moment is an achievement both of actor and Strawdog ensemble member Sam Hubbard and director Cody Estle. Hubbard’s Lloyd is truly terrifying, and Estle deftly guides him and Sims toward a place that feels both realistic and heightened.

Disenfranchised, American white men represent our biggest threat, but they are more than a representation. Their blind sense of superiority has actual consequences. They elected our current President, they shoot up schools and churches, and, in this case, bring the mass bombing tactics of groups like ISIS into the unsuspecting American Midwest.

Lloyd is vulnerable in a different way than the young Americans swayed by ISIS to join their ranks via online chatting. He is capable of extreme violence, but does not know how to handle the aftermath. He sees the way America is failing and is radicalized to action through its indifference, but wants none of the associated notoriety.

He runs away from the scene of the crime with Hassan as his unwitting getaway driver and fall guy, seeing himself as a worthy element within a religion he does not understand. His God complex and self destruction complex wage war within a terrified person with a methodical, slightly sociopathic knowledge of the system and a willingness to frame Hassan, a brown face that fits the assumed perpetrator of the crime, for it all.

As Lloyd unloads his plan on Hassan, it feels as though Lloyd had been studying him from afar – perhaps for his entire life – and evaluating him for this very specific (and in Lloyd’s mind, holy) task. It feels truly unnerving, because it is so real.

I was not expecting to note so many similarities between Strawdog’s Damascus and The Yard’s production of Columbinus, which chronicled how the two Columbine shooters’ distaste for humanity and raging narcissism led to a tragedy and the beginning of the end of students feeling safe at school. Lloyd builds on the lethally angry white male identity refined by the Columbine shooters and all those that came after, and fully weaponizes his white privilege to enact mass casualties, both inside and outside the car he hijacks.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold looked past the direct effect of their actions and toward their future legacy. Lloyd is part of that legacy, and the ubiquitous nature of those like him – in classrooms, workplaces, on the highway next to you – combined with the ability to camouflage and fully assimilate into the larger American zeitgeist is cause for alarm.  

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