A spirit that can't be stopped

Special to The Times

She is a relatively obscure name in her native U.S. -- but thanks to a sellout play here, Rachel Corrie, crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in March 2003, has become an unlikely icon among young British theatergoers.

The 23-year-old student from Olympia, Wash., died in the village of Rafah on the Gaza Strip, where she lived among Palestinian families and worked for the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement, a nonviolent resistance group. Corrie had joined residents trying to prevent their homes from being demolished by standing in line as a human barrier before bulldozers.

"My Name Is Rachel Corrie," a one-woman play featuring Megan Dodds, an American actress living in Britain, is currently being performed at the Royal Court Theatre. It is taken from Rachel's writings, including e-mail exchanges with her parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, written after she left for the Middle East in January 2003.

When the play was first performed in April, its 24 performances became one of the fastest sellouts in the Royal Court's 50-year history. Theater officials, astonished by the number of young people clamoring for tickets, scheduled a second run in the Court's larger auditorium this month, which has also sold out.

"More young people come to see the show than any production I have ever been part of," said Dodds, 35. "The audiences seem very affected by it. People have come up to me afterward and say: 'This makes me want to do something with my life.' "

The play came into being after actor Alan Rickman read transcripts of Rachel's e-mails, published in the Guardian, a British newspaper, and approached the Royal Court with a view to adapting them for the stage.

"We didn't know it was going to be a play," Dodds recalled. "We thought it might just be a workshop. I never had any notion of doing a one-woman show, but Alan believed it could be done, and that it could be me."

Rickman assumed directing duties and collaborated with Katharine Viner, editor of the Guardian's Weekend magazine, in reducing Rachel's writings to a workable length. They were in constant contact with Rachel's parents and her sister Sarah, all of whom provided material from the diaries.

"The Corrie family were key," Viner recalled. "It was up to them whether we could perform the material. They took a year and dug out all Rachel's journals. She was an insatiable journal-keeper. Sarah tells this story of reading every one of them. She'd sit there, laugh and cry, then the next night she'd pour a glass of wine and type the words in, trying not to feel emotion. So after a year we got a bundle of 184 pages. All we'd known of Rachel was the e-mails that were published. Clearly she was a good writer, but we knew nothing of this wealth of material. Rachel as a young woman, trying to find herself, just shone through."

In the opening scenes of the play, Dodds as Rachel is seen in a faithful replica of her bedroom in Olympia, rereading some of her journal entries, dating to when she was 12. The play's moving final scene shows Rachel, captured on video at the age of 10, proclaiming her dream for world hunger to be eradicated by the year 2000.

In fact, the biggest surprise in the play is Corrie's writing talent: One tetchy, combative e-mail to her mother, written shortly before her death, is an especially powerful description of deprived conditions in war-torn Rafah.

"I think we as a family, seeing Rachel portrayed in this production, feel many of the same emotions that the audience does," said Cindy Corrie, replying to questions via e-mail. "There is certainly sadness, knowing that even as her words live on, so much was lost to us that day when she was killed. But it also is very satisfying and comforting when Rachel, through this powerful medium of theater, has an opportunity to speak for herself, and that in doing so her passions, her foibles, her humor and her love for people come through."

Dodds was deeply impressed by the Corries, who came to see the play six times in its initial run, and were planning to return for two more visits later this week. "They're like no people I've ever met," Dodds said. "I'd seen documentaries they were in, so they were like celebrities to me. I felt I knew them already. I met them at the theater. When I came down to the bar and saw Cindy, I got choked up and gave them both a big hug.

"In the Theatre Upstairs at the Court, where we did the first run, it's really intimate, and you can see the audience clearly. Craig and Cindy were very moved when they saw Rachel's bedroom wall. They were sitting there with tears streaming down their faces."

Craig Corrie, while admitting his sadness in watching Rachel portrayed on stage, praised the show. "The production does communicate her humanity, which may be the hardest thing to do, and the thing for which I'm most grateful."

The Corries' lives have been transformed by their daughter's death; they are now politically active themselves. "With her e-mails, she enlightened our entire family, most of whom had been very removed from this issue," noted Craig Corrie. "So when she was killed, her work really became our work."

The Corries have called on the U.S. and Israeli governments to "undertake a full, fair and expeditious investigation" into Rachel's death. Craig quit his job as a life insurance executive, and they now devote their time to raising awareness about the Israeli-Palestinian issue and "seeking a just peace for all in the region." They have toured the U.S. with three members of the Nasrallahs, the Palestinian family who lived in the home Rachel died protecting. (The Israeli army said at the time that the residence was targeted for demolition in an effort to block arms smuggling.) And they are working on a project to make Rafah and Olympia sister cities -- an idea close to Rachel's heart.

Given the play's success, there is talk of staging it in the U.S., initially in New York. Viner noted that in London, there had been "some Internet activity against it, which you'd expect." But she agreed it would be regarded as far more controversial in America. "It's a one-sided view of the conflict," Viner conceded. "Rachel didn't live in Israel, she lived among Palestinians. But to balance it up would have been crazy theatrically. And Rachel's not here to have that conversation."

Dodds was unfazed by the prospect of controversy in America: "It just makes you want to do it more, doesn't it? And if it provokes people in that way, it's something that needs to be talked about."

For now, those arguments can wait; everyone concerned with the play is gratified, if slightly dazed by its success.

"I never take doing this for granted," Dodds said, "because this was a real person -- and a kind of saint, I guess. I just have a lot of respect for her."

Viner added: "The aim was to feel as if you'd spent an hour and a half in the company of an extraordinary woman."

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