A Modern Midwest Thriller

Bennett Fisher’s suspenseful drama Damascus takes on the dangers of implicit and explicit bias

I was able to experience my first show at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre this past weekend for the West Coast premiere of Bennett Fisher’s modern thriller Damascus.

But fair warning: I cannot convey the complexity of Fisher’s storytelling without revealing a bit of the mystery. If you prefer to experience Damascus in all its seat-jumping glory, I highly recommend making your way this weekend to OCT for some high-intensity drama. 

Directed by Tara Wibrew and superbly acted by a micro-cast of four, Damascus is the story of Hassan (Jasper Howard), a struggling Somali American airport shuttle driver in Minneapolis, and his eventful road trip to Chicago with Lloyd (Connor French), a white college student, fluent in polite racism, desperate to catch a flight home to California.

Here’s the thing, though: Liberal college students frantically demanding a ride in the middle of the night should not be granted safe passage. It’s the worst road trip ever.  

The set offers a simple Midwest backdrop — evergreen trees, bare fields and a snow-lined highway. An old van minus the doors and roof is the central rotating feature on stage, and the vehicle becomes a character in its own right. The smoky, dim lighting suggests a cold and bitter early morning ride. 

Despite the minimalist set, Damascus packs a big punch. With a bevy of twists and turns, suspense and revelation, violent outbursts and quiet pauses, and even a sprinkling of humor, there is little left over in the gamut of human feeling. Howard and French bare it all in a masterful 90-minute sprint to the finish line.  

Thematically, Damascus leaves little out. The play takes on racism, justice, expectations, assumptions… insert the “current political climate” narrative that I am more than tired of reiterating. There are even hints concerning dare-I-say spiritual matters behind Fisher’s intent. Hell, “intent” itself is on the table.  

Lloyd in particular spends a lot of time justifying his actions with facts about societal injustices, and political calamities that few can deny. He preaches justice, but his intent is without empathy — the very thing he demands from the world around him.  It’s like that line from The Big Lebowski: “You’re not wrong, Walter; you’re just an asshole.”  

Damascus is a hall with many doors, and two of the actors take on dual roles as cold-bearing Midwesterners (Donella Elizabeth Alston and Lisa Roth). Hassan, however, remains the constant throughout. He is like the van, steadfast, determined, though ultimately at the hands of outside forces, both malevolent and other. Though, unlike Lloyd, Hassan chooses to relinquish his control in dealing a blow of healthy justice.  

Perhaps Fisher meant to blur the lines of assumption and expectation a bit more, but the performances and direction of both French and Howard undeniably set French to be the villain. There is little sympathy for Lloyd, thus transforming some of the intended suspense into bitterness for the all-too-obviously wicked.

The explicit bias called out within the story is not so subtly placed on the audience. A sign of the times, or a slightly misguided focus? Most likely both.  

Either way, Damascus is a powerful testament to the assumptions we all make, and a real horror story about our imprudent attempts at understanding. 

Damascus runs through April 14 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre; info and tickets at www.octheatre.org.