‘The Mecca Tale’ spins women’s stories against backdrop of the Hajj

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They are on a package tour, and they are cranky, because things are not going quite as promised in the brochure. Of course it’s not easy to be one of the millions of pilgrims who travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage considered a mandatory religious duty for Muslims at least once in their lifetime. There is a lot to contend with — the crowds, the heat, the bathrooms, the exhaustion, the anxiety about getting lost or losing sight of one’s bus, the clash of personalities in the group.

In addition, as is the case for the five Muslim-American women who make this pilgrimage in “The Mecca Tales,” Rohina Malik’s alternately witty and poignant play — now in its world premiere at Chicago Dramatists — there are a wide range of personal problems to be considered. In fact, each of these women — led by Grace (Morgan McCabe), who has chaperoned the tours for a number of years, and converted to Islam as a way to connect to her late son — is facing a major crossroad in life. And their individual tales unspool in overlapping fashion, not unlike Malik’s acknowledged inspiration — Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”



When: Through April 12

Where: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago

Tickets: $18

Info: (312) 633-0630; www.chicagodramatists.org

Run time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission

For Bina (Anita Chandwaney), the Pakistani-American woman who is the oldest and wealthiest of the pilgrims, the most irksome matter is that the air-conditioned tent that was to be a “hotel” for the group cannot be reached because the police, faced with severe overcrowding, have closed access to the central area. But what really has upended Bina (who provides some of the comic relief here) is the decision of her two daughters to pursue careers as artists, and worse yet, to reject the men presented to them as husband material. Bina’s own marriage is not in good shape, either.

For Alma (Stephanie Diaz), the pilgrimage to Mecca is a search for forgiveness. She is wracked with guilt about her inability to fully love her baby, who was born with a cleft palate — behavior that has alienated her husband.  As for Maya (Susaan Jamshidi), she has one the saddest tales of all. A refugee from war-torn Syria, her brief marriage ended with the sudden death of her husband and the subsequent birth of their baby. She now must decide how to proceed in life.

The youngest in the group, Malika (Celeste M. Cooper), is a med school student torn between a lifelong effort to please her father and her own desire to give up medicine and pursue a career as a writer. She also develops a crush on the group’s lively young bus driver/guide, Reza (Derek Garza, who plays this and all the other male roles with a deft touch).

Under the fluid direction of Rachel Edwards Harvith, the actors are uniformly excellent, with musician Coren Warden adding just the right sonic atmosphere on the oud. Regina Garcia’s set — a series of overlapping screens in earth-toned geometric forms — beautifully suggests both the geography and the modern architecture of the Middle East, with lighting by Jeff Pines and costumes (color-coded chadors) by Courtney Schum.

Although framed by notions of contemporary Muslim-American life, Malik has written what is essentially a tale of feminist bonding. She largely steers clear of politics, and homes in on how these very different women begin to trust each other, give voice to their personal dilemmas and prepare for change. There is occasional prayer, and talk of the devil, and a certain veil of mysticism at moments, but mostly this is a modern pilgrimage of self discovery.

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