Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Saddam Hussein

Intelligence – Outing a CIA Operative


In 2002, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson was sent to the the African nation of Niger to assess whether Iraq was buying uranium ore to build nuclear weapons. Wilson’s investigation found no such evidence, but in the 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Four months after, the U.S. invaded Iraq, basing that military operation on the erroneous information that Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction.” Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times titled, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” basically accusing the Bush Administration of lying to justify the war.

Retaliation against Wilson zeroed in on his wife, Valerie Plame, a career CIA operative whose identity was leaked to the press by members of the Bush Administration and first published in the Washington Post by conservative columnist Robert Novak. Plame’s outing effectively ended her career and also placed any assets she had worked with in danger. Although Plame did not send her husband to Niger, she also was held responsible for that decision, bringing about charges of nepotism.


Hannah Yelland and Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman

Jacqueline E. Lawton’s aptly titled Intelligence, now playing at Arena Stage, purports to tell Plame’s story. First commissioned in 2015 as part of Arena’s Power Play initiative, Lawton’s work is well-timed. Intelligence leaks are in the news, but as Intelligence shows, those leaks are not new. In a tight and tense 90-minutes, Intelligence imagines Plame’s double life – on one hand, an undercover CIA operative, and on the other, a wife to Wilson and mother to their three-year old twins.

In Playwright’s Notes included in the program, Lawton said that she writes “out of a deep frustration for the lack of strong, complex and engaging roles for women in the American theater.” She was drawn to Plame’s story about a woman “fighting to ensure the national security of the United States.” Intelligence is directed by Daniella Topol, artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York.

In Arena’s Kogod Cradle, Misha Kachman’s set design, dominated by dark gray moveable walls, creates the perfect backdrop for clandestine activities. On the left side of the stage, couches and a coffee table represent the more intimate and comfortable Wilson/Plame living room. The columns also work as screens where video scenes from 9/11 are played, along with snippets of speeches made by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.


Ethan Hova, Nora Achrati, and Hannah Yelland

Working for the CIA’s counter-proliferation division, Plame (a passionate performance by Hannah Yelland, who also resembles Plame) is investigating whether Iraq is amassing weapons. The importance of her mission cannot be understated. Not only will her findings produce valuable evidence that may or may not result in the U.S. attacking Iraq, but any assets who provide that information might be targeted for death. Intelligence is a fictionalized account of what might have transpired as Plame went about her duties.

Dr. Malik Nazari (a searing performance by Ethan Hova), representing one of Plame’s assets, is an Iraqi who once tested chemical weapons for Saddam’s regime. Often the most unpleasant part of a CIA agent’s job is pressuring, even blackmailing, those who are innocent. Leyla Nazari (Nora Achrati) Malik’s niece, is a dress designer who makes frequent trips to Jordan. Plame coming to Leyla’s shop, ostensibly to pick up a scarf, threatens to turn over information about those trips to the government unless Leyla convinces her uncle to meet with her.

Nazari agrees to the meeting, in the coffee shop he now runs. Now out of Iraq, he’s still wracked with guilt over testing chemical weapons on prisoners and others who were unable to defend themselves. He agrees to go back to Iraq to gather information, not for Plame or the U.S., but for his people, he tells her. Plame promises to go with him to Iraq, but is ordered not to do so by her supervisor, Elaine Matthews (Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman). That won’t be the only promise Plame is forced to break. After she’s outed, she’s barred from the CIA (on her next visit, she’s given a visitor pass), and is unable to contact or protect Nazari or Leyla.


Hannah Yelland and Lawrence Redmond

Plame’s situation takes a toll on her at home, too. While her husband (Lawrence Redmond) is depicted here as being less than supportive about her job, complaining when she has to work late or travel (she’s a CIA operative!), he also doesn’t stop to think about what effect his Times column might have on her career. Seeing her name in print in Novak’s story, Plame lashes out at him, pointing out that he has placed her and the children in danger. (In real life, Plame and Wilson eventually relocated from Washington, D.C. to New Mexico, after receiving death threats.)

Never before has gathering intelligence been more important. And never before have these dedicated people who place their lives on the line every day to perform these duties come under such unrelenting attack. Intelligence is a cautionary tale that we have to do better, recruiting the best and brightest for these challenging assignments and then giving them the tools and the support they need to succeed in their missions to keep America safe.

Photos by C. Stanley Photography

Written by Jacqueline E. Lawton
Directed by Daniella Topol
Kogod Cradle
Arena Stage
Extended through April 9, 2017

Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow – Using Fiction for Political Change


Daniel Silva’s new Gabriel Allon mystery, The Black Widow, is not for the faint of heart. Think we’re safe? Think again. Silva pulls no punches and by the time you’ve read the last page, you may want to rethink those vacation plans or even that restaurant reservation. And if you live in Washington, D.C., the plot will hit (quite literally) very close to home.

Silva has been writing the Gabriel Allon series since 2000 when he first introduced us to the art restorer/secret agent/assassin. Allon’s first wife, Leah, was injured and their son, Daniel, killed in a car bombing. Leah now suffers from severe PTSD and memory loss and Allon visits her often in the care facility where she lives, not far from the Jerusalem limestone apartment building where Allon and his second wife, Chiara, reside with their infant twins, Raphael and Irene.

The Black Widow is Allon’s 16th outing and there are hints that supporting characters will take center stage as Silva moves forward. Allon, tapped to become chief of Israel’s intelligence service, will now be spending more time directing the action rather than being in the middle of it. While Allon fans may be disappointed, those poised to take over – Mikhail Abramov and Dina Sarid, two reliable members of Allon’s team, and Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, a French-born Jew who is also a doctor – are compelling enough that the series will probably not miss a beat.

Before Silva was a novelist, he was a journalist, at one point serving as UPI’s Middle East correspondent, reporting from Cairo. His experience covering that volatile area of the world informs his novels. Silva was born a Catholic but converted to Judaism when he was an adult. Through Allon Silva conveys his affection for the Israeli people and his admiration for the Israeli secret service. Intelligence officers from France, Britain, and the United States, are portrayed as naive, ill-informed, and ill-prepared to face the new world order. In The Black Widow, the West, particularly the U.S., pays dearly for underestimating the enemy.

The Black Widow opens with a vicious attack in Paris that claims the life of one of Allon’s friends, Hannah Weinberg, leader of the Isaac Weinberg Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism in France. The bombing was carried out by Safia Bourihane, an Algerian who was living in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a banlieue north of Paris. After her Tunisian-born boyfriend was killed in a coalition air strike, Bourihane was dubbed the “black widow.” Although she had been under French surveillance as a “ticking time bomb,” the authorities felt she was no longer a threat after she stopped associating with known radicals and even ceased wearing the hijab. “Which is exactly what she was told to do by the man who masterminded the attack,” observed one of the French security officials. That mastermind, known only as Saladin, becomes Allon’s next target.

The real Saladin was a Kurd, born in 1138, who beat back the Christians, slaughtering many of them, to reclaim Jerusalem for the Muslims. The ISIS terrorist who goes by the name of Saladin was born in Iraq and was part of Saddam Hussein’s security force. His mission is now worldwide, striking targets in the West using suicide bombers and armed assassins.

To bring down Saladin, Allon plans to find and train a black widow of his own. Like so many Jews living in France, Natalie and her parents relocated to Israel, fearful of the violence being directed at their community. She needs some convincing to join the “Office,” the nickname given to Allon’s operation, but once she signs on, she convincingly transforms herself into a Palestinian, Leila, who mourns the loss of her husband and seems bent on seeking revenge by killing infidels. Natalie/Leila succeeds in her assignment, infiltrating Saladin’s network. But will her efforts be enough to stop the devastating attack that Allon believes is coming?

Silva’s characters are expertly drawn. Over the course of the series, Allon has suffered huge losses yet remains true to his cause. And while the male figures, even the evil Saladin, are very convincing, it’s the female characters that draw us into the story. We follow Natalie on every step of her dangerous journey, amazed at her courage and fearful for her survival. Allon’s wife, Chiara, is loyal to a fault, understanding her husband better than anyone else.

In Author’s Notes at the end of the book, Silva lays out a compelling case for constant vigilance and a concerted effort to defeat the terrorist group, ISIS. He blames both Republicans and Democrats for the quagmire that has developed in the Middle East – President Bush for invading Iraq and President Obama for failing to leave enough troops in the region. And while he reviews some of the recent attacks in Europe, he ends on a sobering note: “The American homeland, however, is ISIS’s ultimate target.”

The Black Widow
Daniel Silva