CAMBRIDGE — “The present is always an awful place to be,’’ muses the title character in Tony Kushner’s “Homebody.’’
Well, not always. Certainly not for the 70 minutes we spend in the company of the Homebody, an otherwise unnamed, middle-aged Englishwoman brought poignantly and beguilingly to life by Debra Wise at Underground Railway Theater.
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner and set in 1998, “Homebody’’ is an eloquently discursive meditation on history, on culture, and on the far-reaching, if sometimes hidden, connections between the past and the present. Kushner’s title character is a singular creation, and Wise responds with a searching performance of corresponding depth. She inscribes her portrayal of the Homebody with a vivid specificity that conveys the character’s personality, imagination, and sensibility.
It’s a small gem of expressive portraiture by Wise, whose day job is as the artistic director at Underground Railway Theater. Gardner, her collaborator on “Homebody,’’ holds the same title at Nora Theatre Company, the other resident troupe at the Central Square Theater.
The Homebody is an armchair traveler fascinated by Afghanistan, which seems to represent to her all the adventure and variety that is lacking in her own life. She often embarks on dizzying flights of language, but for all her erudition and vitality, the Homebody demonstrates a distinct naivete of outlook.
“Oh, I love the world!’’ she exclaims at one point. The world has painfully little regard for her, however; she freely acknowledges her “surfeit of inconsequence.’’ Yet despite her outward self-effacement, the Homebody basks and glows in the spotlight — even though we have happened upon her in, yes, her London home, where she is curled up barefoot in an armchair while attired in a sensible gray sweater, pearls, and knotted scarf.
Thumbing through an outdated 1965 guidebook to Kabul, she ponders Afghanistan’s complex culture and turbulent history — thousands of years of tribal warfare, colonization, and conquest — while frequently indulging in impassioned, digressive flights of fancy. The fact that the guidebook is not up-to-date is part of its appeal to the Homebody; she savors what she calls “the knowing what was known before the more that has since become known.’’
Home for the Homebody is apparently a place of emotional alienation from her husband — both of them are on antidepressants — and her daughter. As she alternates between lyrical descriptions of Afghanistan and reflections on her own disappointing life, the Homebody’s fascination with that nation starts to register not just as a search for connection but as a desire to belong somewhere.
Kushner’s play has a complicated history. Written in the 1990s and originally titled “Homebody/Kabul,’’ it premiered in London in 1999, then arrived in New York at the most fraught time imaginable: the end of 2001, shortly after the United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
In the original, two-part version, which ran nearly four hours, the Homebody ventures into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and the story takes a very dark turn. In recent years, Kushner has permitted theater companies to stage the first act of “Homebody/Kabul’’ as a stand-alone solo play. Consequently, audiences at “Homebody’’ might not necessarily know of the protagonist’s eventual fate.
A tall, narrow bookcase stands behind Wise’s Homebody, while to her left are several piles of hardbound books, testaments to the character’s intellectual curiosity. When she goes to buy fez-like hats for a party at a London store (“A party needs hats!,’’ she declares), the Homebody projects her fantasies onto the Afghan shopkeeper, who is missing several fingers. She imagines a back story for that disfigurement and concocts an imagined scenario in which the two of them make love beneath a chinar tree in Afghanistan.
Her fantasy amounts to an objectification of the shopkeeper, of course, and it can be seen as another illustration of her naivete, but it’s not only that. The Homebody is also identifying with the Afghan, human to human, seeking connection in her way and offering another glimpse into the mind of this thoroughly intriguing woman.
Play by Tony Kushner. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Presented by Underground Railway Theater. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through May 7. Tickets $16-$62, 617-576-9278 ext. 1, www.centralsquaretheater.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.