note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
A word of advice - before seeing Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s season-opening play, “The Persian Quarter,” written by Kathleen Cahill, be sure to read the large posterboards in the lobby that are filled with background information and factual newspaper articles. Read the timeline information in the playbill too, for a clearer picture of what Cahill is portraying in her ambitious but uneven two-act play.
Essentially, Cahill tells the story of two women, an American who teaches English literature for the Iran-American Society in Iran, and one of her captors, when she is suddenly taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries in November 1979 and held for 444 days, until January 1981. “This is like the Hotel California,” she laments. “You can get in, but you can’t get out.”
The narrator, purportedly Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century Iranian poet, (sensitively portrayed by Barzin Akhavan), unrolls a Persian carpet, saying this story unfolds on such a carpet. The symbol is incidental, with little impact, but adds an aura of mysticism.
Cahill peppers the play with Rumi’s readings during her 30-year span of Iranian-American diplomatic relationships, which is incendiary and pro-Iranian, highlighting Kermit Roosevelt’s 1950s policy as greedy, grasping, exploitive, and downright ugly.
Jason Kolotouros in dual roles as Kermit Roosevelt and his fictional, progressive-thinking great-nephew, Mike, is terrific, drawing a sharp contrast between the two. As Kermit Roosevelt, he gleefully rubs his hands together, masterminding a plot and “dirty tricks” to set a puppet shah on the throne, then inciting Islamist militant revolutionaries to overthrow the alleged despot, thus tightening American and British control over the government and Iranian oil. However, Mike, who works for the State Department, is under suspicion, because he has “gone native”. He genuinely cares about the Iranians and their culture and wants to learn about them. When he and attractive former-nun, Ann Gillies, (Beth Wittig) become romantically involved but are suddenly taken hostage, Mike, bound and blindfolded, fades away at the end of the first act. Instead, we follow Ann’s incarceration, focusing on her emotional deterioration and a heated discussion with revolutionary Shirin, (Christina Pumariega).
In the second act, Cahill fast-forwards 30 years, to New York City - Columbia University - where two young women, Emily Gillies, (Ann and Mike’s daughter), and Iranian poetry activist, Azadeh, (Shirin’s daughter), meet by chance, unaware their mothers were once hostage and captor together. Besides exposing Ugly American dogma, Cahill infers nothing has changed, despite Iranians‘ hopes for a free, improved future.
This talented cast, under the watchful direction of Kyle Fabel, is enlightening, but hemmed in by Cahill’s ambitious, uneven plot. In their dual roles, Wittig and Pumariega are vivid foils, reflecting contemporary and past philosophies. While Anne Gillies is a diehard American patriot who naively believes America is faultless, her daughter Emily is apolitical, a freelance celebrity-chasing photographer lacking her mother’s save-the-world goals. On the other hand, Shirin and Azadeh share the same fierce pride in their country, disdain for America, and hope for Iran’s future. Although Shirin outwardly wears a dark burqua (with sweater and pants underneath), her daughter Azadeh wears stylish Western garb, thanks to costume designer Theresa Squire.
Designer Campbell Baird’s set is impressive, with its suspended, large bamboo shades, arched passageways, and tiled, concrete steps.
BOX INFO: Two-act play written by Kathleen Cahill, appearing appearing through Oct. 9, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell. Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m., Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4,8 p.m.; Sundays, 2,7 p.m., Oct. 9, at 1 p.m. only. Tickets start at $24. For more information, visit www.merrimackrep.org or call the Box Office at 978-654-4678