It begins in something close to American-style sitcom, although it is retrofitted to reflect multi-ethnic matchmaking by the immigrant parents of very self-aware and complicated adult children. But as it turns out, “Yasmina’s Necklace,” the lovely play by Rohina Malik now on stage at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, is really a poignant meditation on the psychic scars left by shattered love, horrific wars, cultural displacement and the refugee life. Yes, there are laughs along the way. But there also is an aching sadness. And the ability to balance those things — as demonstrated by Malik, director Ann Filmer, and her gifted cast — is a fine trick of artistry and insight.
When: Through Nov. 19
Where: Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $10 – $40
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission
The first people we meet are Ali (Amro Salama), and his wife of 35 years, Sara (Laura Crotte). Ali is a financially successful man of Iraqi birth, while Sara, who was born into a Catholic family in Puerto Rico, converted to Islam while still in college and wears a hijab. Their son, who describes himself as a cultural “salad,” was given a Muslim name, but much to his parents’ chagrin changed it to Sam (Michael Perez), in order to succeed in the world of Chicago finance. And now, after a three-year “love marriage” to a white woman, and a recent painful divorce, Sam is not only depressed, but is told by his mother that he is more or less damaged goods, but might still have a chance for a happy arranged marriage. In fact, the local Imam Kareem (Allen Gilmore), himself a bit of a cultural salad (he is a hip African American who oversees a mosque of Arab Americans), even has a potential candidate in mind.
That woman is Yasmina (Susaan Jamshidi), an Iraqi refugee who grew up in Baghdad, buried her mother who was killed in the war there, and then, along with her father, Musa (Rom Barkhordar), an Iraqi dentist now struggling to find any job, arrived in Chicago by way of a horrific journey through Syria and Turkey. Now 34, and a brainy, gifted, free-thinking artist who wears a hijab to proudly declare her heritage, she bluntly describes herself as “not normal,” and as fractured as one of Picasso’s Cubist figures. Traumatized by her experiences in war, she lives with her father in a bare-bones apartment and plans to establish an organization that will help young female refugees.
Both Sam and Yasmina, urbane in their own ways, are repelled at the idea of an arranged marriage (or perhaps any marriage). And their first encounter — with the respective parents in attendance, all fully engaged in the comical, cringe-worthy behavior you might expect — suggests this pairing will never work. Yet Yasmina’s paintings touch something in Sam, as do her sharp wit and wariness, and he even offers to contact a friend who might help her secure non-profit status for her project.
In their separate ways, Sam and Yasmina are both fish out of water, struggling to breathe normally, although Sam’s heartbreak and sense of never being fully accepted is not nearly on the same scale of intensity as Yasmina’s death-riddled personal history. There is more to the story, although it should not be revealed here, except to say that the cast also includes Amir (Martin Hanna), a young doctor who chooses to remain in Baghdad; an Officer (Frank Sawa), and an Unnamed Man (Salar Ardebili).
Malik is a stylish, accessible writer who can mix poetic angst with comedic manners (the scenes with tea and cake are priceless). And Filmer, artistic director of Berwyn’s 16th Street Theatre (where she previously directed the world premiere of this play on its smaller stage), has cast the show impeccably, and orchestrated its shifting moods with skill. The actors are at once larger-than-life and winningly nuanced in their performances.
Jamshidi is a powerhouse of emotion and honesty, and Perez is her perfect foil with his mix of honesty and sad-sack insecurity. All three of the parents — the prickly, status-conscious Crotte, the gently henpecked Salama, and the droll, expressive Barkhordar — are masters of tragicomedy, as is Gilmore, as the shrewdly funny, coolly spiritual Imam. As Amir, Hanna leaves an indelible mark by way of one superbly written scene.
Joe Schermoly’s set suggests the power of the curve with its Islamic-style clerestory. Barry Bennett’s musical infusion evokes Middle-Eastern roots. And Yasmina’s paintings, the work of Ahmad Abdulrazzaq, are small, haunting evocations of psyches in need of healing.