Salvaging pieces of civilization in “Inana”

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“What would you save? ” That is the provocative question posed in the TimeLine Theatre lobby display that accompanies its production of Michele Lowe’s timely but overly contrived play, “Inana.”

Beyond another human being of course, what work of art or other priceless vestige of a civilization would you rescue from possible obliteration in the face of war or disaster? Would it be a precious manuscript, a painting, a piece of sculpture? And would you risk your own life, or the lives of those you loved, to save it?

A long history could be written about the valiant souls, most of whom worked in anonymity and at great risk, who either ferreted away great treasures, or saw to it that they were smuggled to safety. They include everyone from museum curators in the Soviet Union to librarians during the siege of Sarajevo and, more recently, during the incursion of jihadis into Mali. A far longer and sadder history could be written about the willful destruction of such treasures – most recently the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan, to the destruction of the medieval market in Aleppo, Syria.


Somewhat recommended

When: Through July 26

Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington

Tickets: $39 – $52

Info: (773) 281-8463;

Run time: 95 minutes with no intermission

As with all TimeLine productions, “Inana” is expertly acted, directed (by Kimberly Senior) and designed (with Collette Pollard’s set and Samantha Jones’ costumes easily conjuring two worlds). But sadly, despite the immediate relevance and importance of the subject, Lowe’s play is overly contrived to the point of disbelief. And despite the fact that most of the damage to national heritage sites and other cultural monuments throughout “The Fertile Crescent” in recent years has been self-inflicted, Lowe predictably saves her most obvious scorn for the Americans.

As it happens, “Inana” is set in a London hotel room, with many flashbacks to the past in Mosul, Iraq (not Baghdad, where the U.S. was blamed for not “preventing looting” at the National Museum of Iraq during the 2003 invasion).

The past first. It is in Mosul, just as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is making his case for the Iraq invasion to the United Nations in Feb., 2003, that Yasin Shalid (Demetrios Troy), chief curator of the art and antiquities museum, is desperately trying to preempt the looting he fears will occur when war begins.

Shalid’s best friend, the bookseller Abdel-Hakim Taliq (Frank Sawa), has already felt the wrath of extremists who have beaten him and pulled out his fingernails. And now Shalid is determined to find a way to protect the museum’s most prized piece – the ancient stone sculpture of Inana, Mesopotamian goddess of both love and war. Part of this involves cajoling his young and ambitious assistant, Mohammed Zara (Behzad Dabu), to create a hard copy card catalogue of the many thousands of pieces in the collection, complete with photographs. He also has contacted Emad Al-Bayit (Anish Jethmalani), a master forger, to make a copy of Inana.

Taliq, who knows that Shalid has friends at the British Museum, and can still get a visa to leave the country “on vacation,” drives a hard bargain. He wants the curator – whose first wife, the beautiful and liberated Hama (Arya Daire), was murdered – to agree to an arranged marriage with Shali (Atra Asdou).

A scene from Michele Lowe’s play, “Inana,” at TimeLine Theatre. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

A scene from Michele Lowe’s play, “Inana,” at TimeLine Theatre. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

Lowe’s play opens as Shalid and his new wife have arrived at their London hotel. Shali has locked herself in the bathroom and seems quite unwilling to consummate their marriage. When she finally emerges, she is fully dressed, with head scarf and gloves. Gradually we come to see that she is educated, headstrong and frightened. She also has a dark secret.

While there are some lovely moments in the play (from a love scene, to a riff on the many shades of orange), Lowe’s story is far too heavily plotted in an effort to make its many different points. And while it certainly reveals the many grotesque cruelties experienced by those living under Saddam Hussein’s regime, it also confuses Iraq with Afghanistan in terms of its attitude toward educating women. (In fact, Iraqi women had some of the highest literacy rates in the region at the time.)

All in all, “Inana” is an example of the way an important subject can fall prey to trendy political thinking.

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