Veils, by Tom Coash. Directed by Leah C. Gardiner. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Hend Ayoub as Samar and Donnetta Lavinia Grays as Intisar; photo: Kevin Sprague
". . .in the land of religous freedom? God forbid!"
"Veils" is a play whose title did not inspire me. However, it is a title that aptly invokes the play that one sees in a new production of this still new play at Barrington Stage Company's main stage theater in Pittsfield, MA. It is a play concerned with ideology and belief, with politics and place, with nations in discord and people in relationships based on the concept of opposites attract. This is not the usual sexual attraction. No. This the fascination of people in different places in their cultural lives who represent those opposite understandings which compel the other to disdain, dislike, admiration and personal courage. "Veils" is, in fact, a play about ideas, the kind of play that sends people running from the box office when it should inspire people to stand in line for as long as it takes to secure a ticket.
Intisar, an idealistic young woman from North Philadelphia whose mother has been an active protestor since the days of Martin Luther King, is a practicing American Muslim who has elected to spend a year in study at the American University in Cairo, Egypt in 2010. She is picked up at the airport by her new roommate, an Egyptian student named Samar who loves all things American and behaves like a typical student from the USA. Each has requested a student they believe will help open up their minds to their cultural differences, but Samar turns out to be more middle American than her just arrived friend could ever be while Intisar is almost quintessential North African Muslim. Not an easy duet to perform, the two spend time getting to know what keeps the other one ticking. Like any ticking bomb, or even alarm clock, there are alarums ahead.
That is the basic substance of the play. There is much more, though, to be uncovered besides Intisar's head and shoulders. She wears the veils that Samar finds repellent. As in many other plays where two clear represntatives of different cultures clash, their uneasy friendship reaches several climaxes, each more difficult than the one before it (think the Samarai and the Sailor in "Pacific Overtures" for example).
Having been produced several times already this play brings two of the creators of these roles to the Barrington Stage Company production. The play won the auspicious Clauder Competition for New England playwrights at Portland Stage in Maine where, in 2014, Donnetta Lavinia Graves and Hend Ayoub originated the roles they are offering in Pittsfield. The play has also been seen in a New Origins Production at The Mask Theatre in Atlanta, GA, at the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca, NY and in an Asylum Theatre Production at the Onyx Theatre in Las Vegas, NV. Doubtless it will be seen in many more productions before long. It is that good a play.
Directed this time around by Leah C. Gardiner on a remarkable set designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, who also created the costumes, with sensational projections designed by C. Andrew Bauer, the play begins at a moderatly high level of excitement and escalates to its conclusion. While not an exact account of the events leading up to the recent Egyptian revolution, the multi-prize winning play gives us all of the essentials and as Gardiner has directed it, the two women play out their ever-changing relationships before a dim and distincet set of images of the time. It is the information shared and the ways in which it is shared that makes the play fascinating. Gardiner shepherds her players into and out of intimacies and estrangements with the straight and tapered crook it takes to keep things on the road and headed toward its needed conclusion.
Hend Ayoub is the Egyptian girl Samar, smartly dressed and coiffed in the American manner. She has a beautiful voice, body and face and there is a naturalness in her performance that could lead one to assume she is not acting at all, but just reliving a personal experience. She brings great energy to the stage and her natural high is even visible in her unnatural low moments in the second act. There is never a false note sounded in her work. It is a terrific interpretation of a complex role that allows her to be so easily understood and so universally accessible.
Donnetta Lavinia Grays plays the American, Intisar, with an openness and honesty that brings us close to her character from the first moment to the last. In a second act monologue dispensing truths that offset the concepts and rumors about her choices, she is riveting through the simplicity of her statements. She also helps us understand several styles of Muslim women's veils from the Hijab to the Al-Amira and on to the full-body Burqa. Grays is a natural teacher, with a voice of pure satin, and she blends the knowledge needed to understand the emotional conflicts of cultural habit with the physical attitudes of a someone burning to share what she feels about it all. Her performance is stellar.
Barrington Stage Company has never turned its back on an issue and here they continue in that tradition established many years back in Sheffield. It is always a pleasure to attend a play that has clearly been chosen for production there because of its message, because of its stance. "Veils" is smack dead center in that tradition. It's a good bet for an evening or afternoon of cultural enrichment, fine drama and excellent theater.
Hend Ayoub; photo: Kevin Sprague
Donnetta Lavinia Grays; photo: Kevin Sprague
Veils runs through October 18 at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, located at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.