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Boston theater shines light on dramas of our times

American Repertory Theater’s 1964-based “All the Way’’  is topical again.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

American Repertory Theater’s 1964-based “All the Way’’ is topical again.

Political polarization in Congress. Shootings in schools. Sexual harassment and rape in the military. Income inequality. The fallout of war. Gaping holes in the health care system.

It’s the stuff of daily news reports — and increasingly the stuff of drama.

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As Boston’s fall theater season hits its stride, what’s been striking is how many productions are either ripped from the headlines or from recent history. Hearteningly, these plays aim beyond mere topicality, drawing instead on theater’s ability to illuminate the complex forces behind those headlines and that history.

It’s a welcome development, this embrace of theater as cultural mirror, and not just because the less navel-gazing solipsism, the better. As a perpetually embattled art form, theater needs to connect as strongly as possible with the wider world, both to build audiences and to ensure vitality in its storytelling.

“I’m seeing fewer plays that are simply about ‘my dysfunctional family,’’’ says Nora Hussey, director of theater and theater studies at Wellesley College. “We love the dysfunctional families, but that story is always going to be there. But responding to contemporary issues, contemporary events, makes the theater much more viable in terms of societal effect.’’

“We have got to tell the stories of today,’’ Hussey adds. “We have to tell what’s happening; we have to bear witness.’’

Ezra Pound wrote that “Literature is news that stays news.’’ Time will tell whether the current crop of issue-oriented dramas passes that test. But it’s clear that in an age dominated by anxieties about terrorism, war, and persistent economic decline, some playwrights and directors have concluded that now is a time to look without rather than within.

‘We have to bear witness.’

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This shift might also represent a tip of the creative cap to the genre known as documentary theater, which, by tackling real-life subject matter, has fortified the idea that some of the most compelling stories are the true ones.

ArtsEmerson has presented several documentary theater productions in recent years, including last month’s work-in-progress presentation of Global Arts Corps’ “Hold Your Tongue, Hold Your Dead,” about the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The legacy of the Iraq war is explored in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful,’’ slated for Lyric Stage Company Oct. 18-Nov. 16. In Hudes’s play, the second in a trilogy, a wounded Iraq veteran named Elliot Ortiz finds himself emotionally adrift. He’s working in a sandwich shop and struggling to launch a career as an actor, only to be jolted by the appearance of the ghost of the first Iraqi man he shot during the war. The man asks him, in Arabic, “Can I please have my passport back?’’ It’s a question that underscores the wobbly uncertainty of Elliot’s own identity and reminds audiences that war engenders all kinds of casualties, visible and not.

A similar message reverberates in Ginger Lazarus’s “Burning,’’ now at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. The play revolves around a former Army sergeant named Cy Burns who was discharged for being gay and now writes a crusading blog in which she exposes the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military. Cy’s motive is a deeply personal one — she seeks justice and to expiate her own feelings of guilt over the fate of a loved one — and the tragic consequences for the women involved are palpable. Because these women live so vividly in Cy’s conscience, they are likely to live on in ours, too.

Writing dramas that tap into the Zeitgeist doesn’t mean shortchanging character. One of the best plays to arrive in Boston in recent years, David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,’’ built a richly individualized portrait of a singular Southie native. But “Good People,’’ produced at the Huntington Theatre Company last fall, also told a broader story about class and economic insecurity through the tale of this unemployed single mother who has a fraught reunion with her old boyfriend, a well-off physician living in Chestnut Hill.

Theater can dig deeply into the subjects it chooses to tackle in a way that sheds light on current events. Consider Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way,’’ a chronicle of the relentless drive by President Lyndon Baines Johnson to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Currently at the American Repertory Theater starring Bryan Cranston, “All the Way’’ dwells on the minute details of political horse-trading and congressional folkways.

Schenkkan dramatizes LBJ’s mixture of charm, ruthlessness, guile, and procedural mastery — all of which prove crucial as the president juggles factions that range from white liberals to black civil rights leaders to segregationists. LBJ unapologetically, even gleefully, deploys the levers of executive power to achieve his goal, a none-too-subtle suggestion by the playwright that this is what it takes to get things done in Washington — a pertinent notion at the moment.

Because of the intimate, let-us-gather-together nature of live performance, theater can shine a light of concentrated emotional force on the stories it chooses to tell. Plays unfold, after all, in venues where the audience cannot change the channel and finds it hard to look away. Deprived of the distance afforded by television and film, we’re forced to confront stage characters, and the feelings they elicit, in the flesh.

In “columbinus,’’ an American Theater Company production presented recently by ArtsEmerson, Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli dramatize the Columbine High School massacre. Inside the Paramount Center’s small Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, there was an unsettling proximity to shooters and victims alike when the murderous rampage was depicted. The audience flinched at each simulated gunshot. Anxieties may have been heightened even further at the first performance, which took place the day after a gunman killed a dozen people at the Washington Navy Yard.

Crucially, the scenes of the Columbine massacre were bracketed by first and third acts that expanded our understanding of those horrible events. Act one was a fictionalized portrait of an unnamed contemporary high school whose students — identified only by names like “Perfect,’’ “Loner,’’ “Freak’’ — struggled to find their footing in the sometimes ugly social pressure cooker that is high school. It gave the audience a lot to think about, none of it comforting. The interactions among students were jarring because you got the sinking feeling you were looking at the unforgiving social ecology of a more-or-less typical high school.

The quietly poignant Act Three, constructed, in documentary-theater style, from interviews with survivors and with family members of the victims, along with letters, delivered a reminder that tragedies like Columbine aren’t over just because they’ve receded from the headlines. In one sequence, a former Columbine student who was a friend of one of the shooters admits he intuitively knew what was going to happen that day. The shooter told him to walk away, and he did. Now he has to live with the guilt and the questions.

When issues are no longer front-page news, theater can remind us of the perils of complacency, as Zeitgeist Stage Company will no doubt attempt when the troupe begins performances Nov. 1 of “The Normal Heart,’’ Larry Kramer’s scorching AIDS drama. Theater can also put a public face on a societal problem like domestic violence, which too often plays out in private. From Oct. 11-26 at Charlestown Working Theater, the fringe company Theatre on Fire will stage Lauren Gunderson’s “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,’’ in which a battered wife takes elaborate revenge on her abusive husband.

Even the most familiar dramas can bring perspective to today’s headlines and concerns. Trinity Repertory Company is presenting a stage adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath,’’ John Steinbeck’s tale of economic dislocation, a saga likely to resonate for many who have seen their lives turned upside down by the Great Recession.

Then there’s “The Elephant Man,’’ staged at New Repertory Theatre in September, as the showdown escalated between Republicans and President Obama over the health care law.

As they settled into their seats, New Rep audiences found a note in their playbills from artistic director Jim Petosa and managing director Harriet Sheets that reframed “The Elephant Man,’’ an account of the short life of the terribly disfigured John Merrick, as a story fundamentally about access or lack of access to quality health care. “Is it a privilege of economic success?’’ they wrote. “Is it a basic human right?’’

Those are just the sort of questions that theater should be, and is, asking.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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