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Global tensions grow in  Red Orchid’s ‘Garden’

Rom Barkhordar (left) Lawrence Grimm star 'In Garden' A Red Orchid Theatre.

Rom Barkhordar (left) and Lawrence Grimm star in "In a Garden" at A Red Orchid Theatre.

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When: Through May 19

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells

Tickets: $25-$30

Info: (312) 943-8722;

Run time: Two hours, with one intermission

Howard Korder’s “In a Garden” is the furthest thing imaginable from a docudrama. Yet the play, now receiving an enthralling production at A Red Orchid Theatre, may very well be the finest evocation of the long, troubled relationship that continues to unfold between the United States and nations of the Middle East.

The genius of this work, deftly directed by Lou Contey, lies in the subtle shrewdness with which Korder captures the uneasy friendship and pervasive psychological tension between these two very different worlds by chronicling the interaction of two men who develop personal, artistic and entrepeneurial ties. Unspooling over 15 geopolitically turbulent years, from 1989 to 2004, “In a Garden” begins as the Minister of Culture of Aquaat, a fictional country very much like Iraq, welcomes a struggling American architect who hopes to win a fat commission for a major project.

The Minister is a Saddam Hussein-like character by the name of Othman (Rom Barkhordar in one of the more brilliant performances you are likely to see this season). Earlier in his life he studied in the U.S., and he still has fond thoughts for his liberated American girlfriend there. A sophisticated man, Othman is passionate about Hollywood movies, deeply versed in the work of contemporary “starchitects,” connected to several wives and mistresses, and tightly bound to an extended family, including a brother, Najid (Emilio G. Robles, as a Middle Eastern Mussolini).

Othman’s dream is to bring modernity to his country through architecture and infrastructure projects. But however much he wishes to be modern, and for all that he understands the trappings associated with that word, there is something inside him that is the very antithesis of free.

Andrew Hackett (Larry Grimm, an uneasy but never ugly American), is not free either. Now in early middle age, he can’t quite get any of his projects off the ground. Aquaat holds career promise. But it is not so straightforward, as with sublime politeness and stunning manipulation Othman easily seduces, dangles and manipulates him for years.

Though Hackett is thinking “airport project,” Othman teases him with a smaller challenge — creating an intimate gazebo and lemon garden evoking the man’s idyllic childhood home. Meanwhile, the world goes through countless upheavals, from the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the invasion of Kuwait, to Sept. 11, to the war in Iraq (Shannon Parr is ideal as a U.S. Army captain).

Both men age visibly — Othman as a result of far more horrific things than the broken marriages and disappointing career faced by Hackett. Only one thing is certain: Nothing is quite what it seems in this exquisitely nuanced power play.

A final note: The inspired scene changes here feature assistant stage manager Sarah He, veiled and silent, arranging cups of sweet tea. The only woman in view.

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