REVIEW Nation, ethnicity, family, friends, gender, lover where do our true loyalties lie? More to the point, when our multiple loyalties slip out of concentric orbit and collide, how much say do we really have in the matter? These questions arise provocatively from two very different plays making their Bay Area premieres.
In the first, Golden Thread's generally sturdy West Coast premiere of Joyce Van Dyke's A Girl's War: An Armenian-Azeri Love Story, an aging Armenian American fashion model, Anna (Ana Bayat), returns to the war-torn village of her youth determined not to be affected by the ongoing ethnic strife that has just taken the life of her brother (Adrian Cervantes Mejia) and racked the Azerbaijani region of Karabakh since the late 1980s converting her stolid yet hot-tempered mother (Bella Warda) into a machine guntoting foot soldier for the Armenian cause. Almost flaunting her own aloofness and disapproval, Anna even resists calling herself Armenian and soon falls in love with a returning member of her family's onetime Azeri neighbors, now antagonists: a passionate young deserter (Zarif Kabeir Sadiqi) who arrives stealthily one day at her mother's house, which he and his family briefly occupied years before.
Van Dyke's 2001 play opens on a world seemingly apart, however, as Brit fashion photographer Stephen (Simon Vance) snaps photos of the still-striking Anna, his old flame and muse, glowering at him in some haute-couture idea of battle garb. The contrast is key and works its way into the second setting in Karabakh, when Stephen and his cheerful but recently shaken assistant Tito (Mejia) arrive after escaping anti-U.S. feelings during a harrowing trip to Turkey. Here in her mother's house, Anna's two worlds collide even as she insists she needs no land, passport, or language to define her. Her stoic but long-suffering mother, however, shows little patience for her daughter's flighty Western cosmopolitanism, and we are left with our own sympathies unsettled, fraternizing with all sides.
Along the way, the play neatly works a certain doubling conceit. The same actor playing the Italian American Tito, for instance, also plays Anna's recently deceased brother, a spectral presence in the form of the far more severe but equally sensitive Seryozha. The implications are subtle rather than crude, suggesting the dramatic shaping done by circumstance across a universal segment of young manhood. And the climax, in yet another doubling, underscores the point resonantly, as another two seemingly very different characters lie side by side, brought together in death the most democratic of states and made mirror images of each other. It's an effect that might have been overplayed, but under artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian's confident direction it happily comes off with matter-of-fact simplicity. The play as a whole succeeds in similar fashion, overshadowing, if not altogether escaping, its more maudlin and moralizing tendencies with fitting dramatic tension, unexpected twists, and thematic delicacy.
TO HELL AND BACK Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, meanwhile, offers an admirably complex take on love and loyalty in the context of the proverbial war of the sexes, in director Buddy Butler's graceful Northern California premiere of William A. Parker's Waitin' 2 End Hell. An African American couple (a towering Alex Morris and a slyly understated Pjay Phillips) find their relationship hitting the skids after 20 years of marriage, dividing along lines of gender solidarity the four friends who've shown up to celebrate their anniversary. If the title playing on the Terry McMillan novel isn't that funny, Parker's naturalistic dialogue offers consistent laughs and truths, pivoting expertly on the comic and tragic dimensions of male-female rivalry in the context of African American experience.