Chicago Theater Review: YASMINA’S NECKLACE (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 31, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


How much “home” can first-generation Americans abandon in order to make a new one? Acculturation, assimilation, adjustment—they’re not necessary evils but they carry a cost. Over two centuries American plays have served as imaginative experiments to calibrate the challenges and sacrifices that Irish, Italian, African-American, Hispanic, LBGT and poverty-stricken families faced as they tried to “fit in.” A serviceable contribution, Rohina Malik’s new work brings a similar sentimental/sociological focus to two Iraqi families in Chicago—and the marriage that heals the holes in their hearts.

A world premiere at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater, Yasmina’s Necklace has now received a “downtown debut” from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. It’s a satisfying transfer, this persuasive revival by original director Ann Filmer. Only the details differ amid the comforting familiarity of a domestic drama’s intercultural clash of values and outlooks. Malik delivers a useful look at the virtues and perils of accommodating a different past to a pressing present, of retaining what matters and accepting what still counts.

Malik’s lovers who marry run an intriguing gamut between well-contrasted clans of Middle Eastern-Americans. An ambitious new citizen, Sam (Michael Perez), who changed his name to improve his job prospects, works in the Loop as a financial analyst. Unhappily divorced from his unfaithful Tracy, this son of Iraqi-Puerto Rican parents (he calls himself a “salad”) now resists entering a marriage arranged by his fussbudget mother Sara (Laura Crotte) and solicitous father Ali (Amro Salama). Though faithful members of their local Iraqi-Pakistani mosque and its African-American imam (Allen Gilmore), they left Baghdad without looking back.

Not so for Sam’s prospective helpmate Yasmina (Susaan Jamshidi), a painter haunted by looted art and a lost lover from an Iraq decimated by invasion and civil war. Despite the best intentions from her protective father (Rom Barkhordar), a dentist who can’t find similar work in Chicago, Yasmina feels “broken” and “not normal.” Wanting to belong, she’s organized a charity for refugees. As a remembrance of a persistent heritage, she wears a necklace carved in the shape of Iraq from a rock that holds an emotional legacy not easily discarded.

Initially Sam finds Yasmina’s “fresh off the boat” naivete about her new homeland charming, then confusing. (She smears herself with Iraqi soil, never to forget, and is haunted by the memory of death threats from religious radicals and the 27 days she spent in a Syrian prison being groomed as an informer.) Is she an alien or an angel?, Sam wonders. In turn, she asks him what kind of tree he is—firmly rooted in the fatherland or a shallow sapling unable to contend with change?

Despite the polarities, Sam and Yasmina find common cause as he helps to establish her altruistic foundation. He learns to love the paintings she draws from her own darkness. Fractured at the start, their marriage, it seems, can be mended with strategic listening and secret-sharing. Malik refuses to create any problems she can’t fix.

More schematic than dramatic (with sitcom humor employed to scant effect), the play’s solutions for the newlyweds’ temperamental conflicts are believable if formulaic. It’s a sad sign of ignorant times that ideological rows between two Muslim households living in Chicago can pass for revelations. Supposedly astonished to discover the humanity of arrivals to this shore, we’re still on the same learning curve as Abie’s Irish Rose or Raisin in the Sun. Wow, they can be just like us? Imagine…

What makes this latest “new normal” matter are 120 minutes of intense and well-grounded performances that Filmer inspires from all nine actors. Jamshidi’s still shell-shocked Yasmina and Perez’s sincere if stumbling Sam fight and fit well together, symbolically linked by the ancient Arabic arcade that connects the very different domiciles in Joe Schermoly’s deft set design. A surprisingly religious play has found its rightful place under the sun.

photos by Liz Lauren

Yasmina’s Necklace
Goodman Theatre
Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on November 19, 2017
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit Goodman

for more theater info, visit Theatre in Chicago

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