03/08/2014 03:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Trapped in Limbo

Not everyone gets to go on a "jolly holiday." Some people never even get to a experience a "season to be jolly." Their souls crushed by circumstance, their backs broken by bureaucracy, their lives shattered by forces beyond their control, they can barely manage to get from one day to the next.

Whether these people are trapped in a cycle of poverty, battling a physical disability, ravaged by a terminal disease or cursed with a mental illness, the depths of their depression and despair -- as well as the looming spectre of their death -- provide plenty of fodder for the fertile imaginations of writers. Misery may love company but, for many a creative type, someone else's misery may provide the basis for a novel, movie script, or stage play.

Bottom line? There's gold in them thar pills!

Two Bay area premieres showcased the struggles of unlucky souls trapped in radically different cultures on opposite sides of the planet. While neither production could be described as an uplifting evening of theatre, each shone a light on the struggles of simple people made to cope with the hand they'd been dealt by unseen forces.

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Take any family that has had its share of hurt and sorrow, line them up along the footlights and ask them to explain a simple fact and you might quickly find yourself in the middle of a heated argument. The opening scene of Mona Mansour's play, Urge For Going, begins with a Palestinian family bickering over issues of identity.

  • Do they define themselves by the parameters of their original homeland or by the constraints of the refugee camp in South Lebanon where they currently reside?
  • Should they be forced to accept the political world's definitions of their homeland (from which more than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced when the State of Israel was created in 1948)?
  • What about the impact of 1967's Six-Day War, after which another 300,000 Palestinians were relocated to Lebanon and Jordan?
  • Can the children of Palestinians who grew up in refugee camps still claim to be Palestinian?

Don't get this family started......

Ghassan (Munaf Alsafi), Hamzi (Julian Lopez-Morillas) and
Abir (Tara Blau) in Urge For Going (Photo by: David Allen)

As directed by Evren Odcikin, the Golden Thread Productions' staging of Mansour's one-act play brings audiences into the home of a family torn apart by politics, defeat, and depression. It's 2003 and the family is dealing with multiple crises.

  • Adham (Terry Lamb) is a former scholar who was unprepared for his brief moment of glory at a conference in London. After he and his wife returned home following the Six-Day War, he sank into a depression which often leaves him barely communicative.
  • Jul (Wiley Naman Strasser) is Adham's son, once a bright young man with a talent for math and science who suffered brain damage when he left home one day to run an errand and was severely beaten by Israeli soldiers. Like the rest of his family, Jul loves to watch reruns of Baywatch.
  • Jamila (Camila Betancourt Ascencio) is Adham's 17-year-old daughter, a bright young woman with a thirst for knowledge who needs her father to fill out a form from school and show his passport as proof of residency in order for her to take the college entrance exam that could change her future. If Jamila passes the exam, she hopes to leave Lebanon and transfer to a school in Damascus.
  • Abir (Tara Blau) is Adham's dutiful wife, who must keep peace in their home while trying to find a future for their children.

Jul (Wiley Naman Strasser) and his sister Jamila (Camila
Betancourt Ascencio) in Urge For Going (Photo by: David Allen)

Add in the presence of Jamila's two uncles -- the overbearing, highly argumentative Hamzi (Julian Lopez-Morillas) who is Adham's brother, and Ghassan (Munaf Alsafi), Abir's brother -- and there are more than enough wounded egos for a playwright to work with. According to Mansour, Urge For Going (which premiered at The Public Theatre in New York in 2011) is a fairly autobiographical drama:

"I wrote this play for American audiences, most definitely, but I want it to reach Arab and Arab-American audiences. I don't think stories about the Middle East are being told enough. They surely aren't being told truthfully. One of the challenges in this kind of a piece is: How much do you need to help out an American audience? I've found that sometimes you have to add exposition you wouldn't normally want to (but without which an American audience would be lost).

I grew up in the same house as my brother and sister but I know they don't identify themselves as Arab-American or Lebanese-American. I absolutely do. That part of my cultural background, my childhood and beyond, has completely influenced how I view things personally and politically (if we even want to make those distinctions). It started off with my wanting to explore my father's homeland, Lebanon. From there, I began to find out more and more about the situations for Palestinians there. I was struck with how Chekhovian, in a way, their existence is. They're in this eternal waiting game in temporary camps set up over 60 years ago (in some cases just miles from what is now the Israel-Lebanon border), waiting to go home."

Adham (Terry Lamb) and his daughter, Jamila (Camila Betancourt
Ascencio) in Urge For Going (Photo by: David Allen)

While Urge For Going's ensemble works extremely hard (I was particularly impressed with the performances of Wiley Naman Strasser and Tara Blau), the play depicts a family stuck in a situation of hopelessness and helplessness, where Adham's emotional and intellectual paralysis threatens to cripple his daughter's future. Just as audiences wonder if Chekhov's Three Sisters will ever make it to Moscow, Mansour's audiences should be careful not to assume that Jamila will be able to extricate herself from a haunted family that lives like ghosts.

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Over in Berkeley, the Aurora Theatre Company presented the Bay area premiere of Samuel D. Hunter's play, A Bright New Boise. Set in the break room of a Hobby Lobby crafts store in Boise, Idaho, the script reflects some of Hunter's experiences as a teenager. As the playwright explains:

"I grew up in northern Idaho and attended a fundamentalist Christian high school while working at a local Walmart, so I guess the two experiences have always been sort of conflated for me. There's also just something really interesting about the idea of a break room -- it's like this awkward meeting place for a bunch of people who ostensibly have nothing in common other than their place of work. Fundamentalism occupies such a large part of the American consciousness, but very little of our art. I like to explore what it's like to live with these beliefs in a constantly modernizing world. It's all about the tension between the two major themes in the play: banality and divinity."

Leroy (Patrick Russell) tries to rattle Will (Robert Parsons)
in A Bright New Boise (Photo by: David Allen)

Hunter's play begins with Will (Robert Parsons) standing in the rain, arms outstretched to Heaven, screaming "Now! Now! Now! Now!" in the hope that he has found his way to the parking lot just in time for the Rapture. Having left an Evangelical congregation near Couer d'Alene following the scandalous death of a teenage boy, Will has relocated to Boise, where he is trying to get a job at the same crafts store where his estranged son (who was given up for adoption at birth) is employed.

Although Will insists on keeping a low profile during his job interview (and after he has been hired), he has an ulterior motive. He desperately wants to get to know his son, Alex (Daniel Petzold), before the Rapture carries him up to Heaven. If ever there was a need for a shining demonstration of how a Christian fundamentalist can be as shallow and creepy as a child molester, Hunter's play rises to the challenge.

Alex (Daniel Petzold) listens to his biological father, Will
(Robert Parsons) in A Bright New Boise (Photo by: David Allen)

It's easy enough for Will to insinuate himself into his son's workplace. The store's manager, Pauline (a slimmed-down Gwen Loeb) may curse like a truck driver but is the sole person responsible for turning around a failing store whose bottom line seemed beyond hope to the folks in corporate headquarters. Her star employee, Leroy (Patrick Russell), may be an arrogant young motherfucker, but he's the only employee in her store who knows anything about art. As Alex's stepbrother, Leroy is also the one person who can calm his brother whenever Alex suffers one of his frequent panic attacks.

Then there is Anna (Megan Trout), the only other female employee. A painfully insecure young woman stuck in a miserable living situation, Anna often sneaks into the store's break room after work because it offers her a safe place to read. Short on social skills, she tries to be nice to Will (who sneaks into the break room after hours so he can work on his blog). But when Will's hyper-religiosity bursts forth, even Anna (who is in awe of writers) has the basic survival skills to flee the room in order to escape from the sinister stench and fantastical fury of Will's Christian proselytizing.

Anna (Megan Trout) tries to read in the store's break room
in A Bright New Boise (Photo by: David Allen)

As directed by Tom Ross, A Bright New Boise is a well-crafted play about some truly twisted people whose futures hold little capacity for joy. The key phrase ("I think I might be a bad person") spoken at different points in the evening by Will and his estranged son is a clear warning that all is not well in The Gem State. While Hunter's script shows the pathetic lack of introspection among some religious fundamentalists, it also demonstrates how many of the nonbelievers around them have become convinced that their lives are already a living hell.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape