REVIEW: Here Where It’s Safe (Stage Left Theatre)

Exposes disturbing trend of foreign surrogate mothers

 safe3

Stage Left Theatre presents:

Here Where It’s Safe

 

Written by M.E.H. Lewis
Directed by
Scott Bishop
through April 3rd
(more info)

Review by Barry Eitel

Stage Left’s most recent offering, Here Where It’s Safe, definitely fits in with their declared purpose of exploring socio-political subjects. The new play sifts through an ethical quagmire that has international implications: the rising issue of barren couples paying foreign women to have children for them. M.E.H. Lewis focuses on Indian surrogates in Here Where it’s Safe, telling a very contemporary story about an American woman’s relationship with the young Indian girl that’s carrying her baby. It’s a massively relevant tale full of current statistics, figures, and headlines, but the social topics of the play overshadow the dramatic gravitas.

safe2 This is the last show Stage Left is doing in their long time space on Sheffield; they will be moving into the Theatre Wit complex for next season. They make a grand exit with scenic designer William Anderson’s gorgeous set. His design envelopes the space, placing us in a traditional Indian world with intricate motifs in metal and wood. Scenes travel thousands of miles and take us from America to India, and the set is open enough to allow all of the scenes to happen with short transitions. Complemented by Jessica Harpenau’s lights and Elizabeth Flauto’s colorful costumes, the production forms a fascinating world.

On the whole, the performances are pretty convincing, although sometimes there seems to be a disconnect among the ensemble. Cat Dean is Abigail, a woman ravaged by her failed attempts to have a child. Dean carries the show, but can also be a bit too stoic at times, which teeters on boring an audience. Her best work is when she is in the scenes with Mouzam Makkar, who plays Beena, the 19-year old girl Abigail is paying to have her baby. Makkar has the best performance in the production, capturing the youthful brattiness of a teenager combined with the emotional maturity of a wife and mother forced to make tough choices. She is a blank slate with the ability to project and withhold intentions and motivations from her scene partners and the audience. Occasionally, though, what drives her forward is hard to read even in the intimate space. Cory Krebsbach is goofy yet lovable as Abigail’s husband and Anita Chandwaney is excellent as Dr. Uma, Beena’s “boss” at the surrogate agency. safe1 The weak link in the cast is Kate Black as Abigail super-liberal friend Jem, who doesn’t seem to have much of a point besides providing a progressive worldview on the matter and saying “breeder” a lot. Supposedly Jem helps flesh out the ethical issues, but Black comes across as detached and uncaring.

I think the cutting of a couple of scenes would strengthen the play. As it is, Lewis’ script extends itself too far, having a lot of shorter scenes. They begin to feel extraneous after awhile. The plot and themes could be consolidated; the play could kick harder. It feels like Lewis was really excited to confront her audience with an issue that gets very little facetime in the media. However, the play that wraps it could be more coherent. The text evolves around themes, instead of a script giving birth to social, political, and economic questions. The characters all have their reasons, personalities, and the plot is logical, but the work as a whole seems more concerned with putting out a message than telling a compelling story.

I was never bored by the show, nor turned off by any of the more overt political discussions, and it does shed light on a little-known yet somewhat disturbing trend. Here Where it’s Safe could just be made a lot more powerful if it didn’t tangle itself in some vague opinions.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Return to Haifa (Next Theatre)

Accomplished design team elevates poignant story

 

ReturnToHaifa26 

Evanston’s Next Theatre presents:

Return to Haifa

by M.E.H. Lewis
directed by
Jason Southerland
through March 7th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Return to Haifa is a smart and moving new play that follows two couples, one Jewish and one Palestinian during the ugly formation of the Jewish state. M.E.H. Lewis, a Chicago playwright, has created a nicely structured play, balancing the two couples against each other in a simple and effective way. She is credited in director’s note as being “famous as a playwright who does research worthy of a PhD dissertation,” and that is evident in her work – though, at times, it feels too academic.

ReturnToHaifa21 The Jewish & Palestinian husbands (nicely played by Daniel Cantor & Anish Jethmalani , respectively) are named Jacob & Ishmail for the estranged decedents of Abram who fathered Judaism and Islam. Playwright Lewis does not allow Ishmail a single scene in the first act where he does not mention a goat: “He will be so strong he will be able to kick a goat over the ocean” or “He can’t even milk a goat without knocking the bucket over three times.” Do you get it? Palestinians used a lot of goats in the 1940’s. This kind of writing can feel a little bit cold, especially during the first act, where large chunks feel like historical exposition. By the second act, however, all of this research comes together; creating a tension and frustration in the dialogue that would not be possible without the sometimes-alienating moments in Act One.

It’s the production’s women that make the play: Diana Simonzadeh as Safiyeh does some of the best on stage aging I have ever seen, both physically and emotionally. She goes from a playful, happy young mother to a wise, angry, regretful old woman without ever losing a bit of integrity or honesty. Her counter part, Saren Nofs-Snyder, gives a truly heartbreaking performance as Sarah, the holocaust survivor.

The over-arching themes of Return to Haifa deal with one’s possessions and where you call home. The house that these women both call home at different points of the play is always the most prominent thing on stage, and it’s well designed by Tom Burich. The walls are made of gauzy scrim, giving the inside of the house a nostalgic, dream-like and unattainable feel.

ReturnToHaifa12 ReturnToHaifa10
ReturnToHaifa28 ReturnToHaifa14

Whenever Jared Moore is involved in lighting design, he seemingly becomes one of the play’s leading roles, as he comments on and advances the story on stage. He is so intuitive and artful about his work. The house is lit mostly in warm ambers, making it look inviting and safe, until it isn’t, and the stage becomes washed out with a nauseous grey blue that actually looks like death.

Return to Haifa is a good show, and a good choice for Next Theatre, whose shows often tend to be more traditional. Return to Haifa is not a challenging play, even though the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a challenging topic. It examines horrible things without any true horror. The result is a nice and moving drama, which focuses more on the emotional than the political.

Rating: ★★★

 ReturnToHaifa38

JeffAwardLogo 

View (2010-02) Return to Haifa - Next Theatre

Continue reading