At the Goodman (Owen) Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—“Yasmina’s Necklace” had its world premiere last year in suburban Berwyn, where it received a positive critical and audience reception But Berwyn is not on the flight path for many area playgoers so this excellent show never reached an extended audience that resided elsewhere in the metropolitan area. The Goodman Theatre has brought “Yasmina’s Necklace” to its Owen Theatre in substantially the same 2016 staging. The show remains a winner, though only in an insufficient three-week run.
Rohina Malik’s play comes at the viewer in layers. It begins in sitcom fashion, with two attractive and available young people start out intensely disliking each other, but the audience knows before the characters that the couple will end up in a successful romance. The main difference is that Sam, the male in the twosome, is born of an Iraqi father and a Puerto Rican mother, and Yasmina, the female, is an Iraqi painter who has become a refugee, settling Chicago with her father to escape the civil war horrors of Iraq and Syria.
The play portrays the culture clashes between Sam’s parents, established in the new world, and Yasmina and her father, Musa, who are refugees and thus viewed with disdain as unemployed layabouts, at least by Sam’s stiff-necked mother. Apparently Islam, like other cultures, is marred by class conflicts. All this is treated with a sure light touch by the playwright. But the play’s narrative palette darkens as Yasmina recounts the horrors she endured in the killing fields of the Middle East, including finding her mother dead on a roadside.
Outwardly Yasmina is strong and outspoken, but her devastating experiences in Iraq and Syria have left deep emotional and psychological scar tissue, personal baggage that might cripple her chance for a decent personal life. Yasmina is also fiercely loyal to her native country and feels alienated in America (the necklace of the play’s title is a piece of jewelry in the shape of Iraq that she wears constantly in memory of her brutalized homeland).
All the characters are Muslim (Sam’s Puerto Rican mother being a convert from Roman Catholicism), and references are made to the discrimination and hostility Middle Eastern Muslins endure from suspicious American who know Muslims only as terrorists. Sam’s name is really Abdul Samee Marcario Lopez Hassan. He changed his name to Sam to gain a foothold in the corporate world that apparently has no tolerance for prospective employees with Arabic names. Yasmina bitterly accuses him of denying his culture, a culture she loves passionately. Sam maintains he needs to abandon the trappings of his Muslim background out of career self preservation and claims it’s no big deal, but he is on a diet of four medications a day for anxiety and depression and has just completed a painful divorce from his non-Muslim American wife.
For almost two hours of stage time, the platy juggles this abundance of political, ethnic, religious, and cultural themes. The playwright clearly wants to show that Muslims in America are normal people with assimilation problems that have been common in American immigrant society for generations. They are not exotics and they are not terrorists but the headlines are against them.
“Yasmina’s Necklace” reminded me of Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prizewinning drama “Disgraced,” which also dealt with the contemporary assimilation problems of Muslims in the United States. That was a much more intense examination of Muslim life in this country but as a window to Muslim life in the USA the two plays have much in common, including some splendid writing and vivid characters.
The Malik play is built around Yasmina and the current production is fortunate in casting Susaan Jamshidi as the anguished young woman, a performance that is as rich and sensitive and committed as any we will see this season. Jamshidi’s Yasmina eloquently evokes the misery and danger of life in her homeland, a land she loves so much that leaving it, even for her own survival, is tearing her apart. She represents the thousands of common people enmeshed in the slaughter of the Iraqi and Syrian maelstrom, humanizing their suffering while the Western world is fed media reports of terrorist outrages and thousands of refugees jammed at the borders of Western countries who may sympathize but refuse to open their gates.
Jamshidi is surrounded by an exemplary supporting cast, most of them veterans of the Berwyn premiere. Michael Perez plays Sam, and it isn’t his fault that his character is much more lightweight than Yasmina. But Perez’s Sam grows in stature as the play progresses, and his address in Spanish to Yasmina as he woos her is the most charming and feeling bit in the play, even though I didn’t understand a word of it.
Amro Salama and Laura Crotte are delightful as Sam’s parents, providing the majority of the comedy along with Rom Barkhordar as Yasmina’s father. Allen Gilmore is first rate as the Muslim imam who is a voice of common sense and reason amid the sound and fury, both funny and somber, that illuminates the narrative. The ensemble is rounded out by Frank Sawa, Martin Hanna, and Salar Ardebili as three men shown in flashbacks who touched Yasmina’s life in her turbulent years in the Middle East.
The action is divided between the apartments of Sam’s parents and Yasmina and her father, both stylishly designed as dual playing areas on the intimate Owen Theatre stage. Rachel Sypniewski designed the costumes, Cat Wilson the lighting, and Barry Bennett composed the original music and sound design. And a shout out to Eve Breneman as the dialect coach. Sam and the imam are the only characters who don’t speak with an accent but everyone spoke with gratifying clarity.
The orchestrator of the production is Ann Filmer, who directed the world premiere in Berwyn and returns to stage the revival at Goodman. Filmer has great empathy for Malik’s script ad beautifully sustains the play’s various moods without melodrama, special pleading, or overdoing the comedy. Filmer and her cast have crawled inside the skin of the script and the result is refreshingly sympathetic and honest. Patrons are exposed to a desert island performance by Susaan Jamshidi and allowed an authentic look into the lives of individuals trying to make the best of their relocation in a Western culture that warily views their religion, their ways of life, and even their clothing. The ticket prices are exceptionally low and the audience rewards are exceptionally high.
“Yasmina’s Necklace”” runs through November 19 at the Goodman (Owen) Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $40. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www.goodmantheatre.org/Necklace.
The show gets a rating of
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