note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Magnificently swathed in a bronze and glittering gold sari, playwright Leslie Harrell Dillen said her new play, “Two Wives of India,” is largely autobiographical.
During a post-performance discussion with the cast and director, Dillen said, like her two principal characters, she and her husband’s ex-wife traveled to India to attend her stepdaughter’s wedding to an expatriate, native-born Indian.
And like her characters, she went shopping and traveled to key spots throughout the country. But, unlike the father-husband in her play, who died in a hang-gliding accident at age 50, her husband is very much alive, she said, beaming. And, she added, she and his ex-wife don’t bicker like characters Becca and Mary Jo. They get along very nicely.
Dillen said from the time she took notes during that fateful trip to her stepdaughter’s wedding and framed the play, it has been revised several times and may undergo additional tweaking; but with the fantastic cast at Boston Playwrights, under the astute guidance of director M. Bevin O’Gara and sound designer David Remedios‘ expert touch, there‘s not much to tweak.
Karen MacDonald as flighty, lonely stepmother Mary Jo; Amelia Broome as the sophisticated, self-sufficient ex-wife and nemesis, Becca and Ben Martin as their daughter Emily’s fiance, Jaskanvar, are outstanding.
The plot appears simple but has several layers.
Jaskanvar lived in America for 10 years and resents his culture and India’s crowdedness and poverty.
However, his parents hope the couple will stay in India. By exposing the two mothers and Emily to India’s inherent charm, spiritualism, and beauty by taking them to large cities and exotic sites like the Taj Mahal, and an obscure temple, they hope the ladies will experience and become all things “India” - which appears unlikely - especially Becca.
She’s a Manhattan control freak with her own consulting business. She flies first class and has little patience for Mary Jo, a small-town woman who moved back to Oklahoma City after Sam died. Mary Jo’s jobless, lost, and trying to re-start her life. Clinging to Sam’s memory, she carries an urn filled with his ashes in her purse, and talks to him frequently.
Although Mary Jo is charmed by India, Becca blurts out, “I didn’t raise my daughter to fall for the first turbanhead she sees.” She furthermore blames Mary Jo for stealing her husband.
Amid this turmoil, Sam’s spirit blithely fades in and out, aided by Remedios’ magical sound effects and lighting designer Crystal Bigwood’s glowing spotlight.
Award-winning actor Robert Saoud captivates, adding comedy as the ghost of Sam; Jaskanvar’s father; a spritely narrator; a lollygagging cow that doesn’t look sacred; a dog; and a frazzled taxi driver. And Asa Bhuiyan is charming as his female counterpart, portraying Jaskanvar’s mother and other roles.
Set designer Jon Savage provides a lovely, moveable backdrop that changes colors behind a turreted, arched frame, as draped jewel-tone sashes flutter overhead. Small, simple props, accompanied by Remedios’ resounding sound effects represent flying airplanes and moving trains.
Besides India’s exotic atmosphere, Dillen captures its contrasts: the lush Taj Mahal and free-flying green parrots (which Saoud and Bhuiyan wave around on a long stem), heralding serenity, while filthy slums are mired with nauseating stenches and hordes of beggars.
Besides defining the characters’ personalities, Rachel Padula-Shufelt’s costumes, especially her glittering, rich-toned saris and punjabis, are a feast for the eyes.
The only flaw is the constant reference to the ethereal Emily, whom we never see. Dillen said she feared Emily would divert attention from her main characters; but as one theatergoer said, if she’s so perfect, why is she constantly shopping with his relatives and spending no time with her own?
BOX INFO: Two-act play written by Leslie Harrell Dillen, appearing now through Nov. 21, at the Boston Playwrights Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. Showtimes are Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday,Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Reserved tickets are $30; seniors. $25; students with valid ID, $10. Call 866-811-4111 or visit bostonplaywrights.org.