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A CurtainUp Review
Mahida’s Extra Key to Heaven,
By Elyse Sommer
Sound like love story in the making? The missed ferry is certainly a propitious device for bringing together two people who turn out to be kindred spirits. In a less turbulent world, the happenstance meeting of Mahida (Roxanna Hope) and Thomas (James Wallrt) might indeed be a light-hearted story of two people from different cultures having an instant romance. But this is a four character play and the other two characters are Mahida's brother Ramin (Arian Moayed) and Thomas's mother Edna (Michele Pawk).
While Mahida and Ramin were raised in Iran by an enlightened father who wanted them both to be educated, it seems Ramin got caught up in Muslim extremism. He's used his visa to save his sister from what he sees as a corrupt world and make her return with him to the life he's taken up after studying in a Pakistan Madrass. As for Thomas's mother Edna, she is a 2009 style ugly American who has absorbed all the propaganda that makes patriotism and intolerance bedfellows.
And so, Russell Davis's often quite lovely, getting-to-know-you dialog between Mahida and Thomas conveys a hopeful sense of possibility, but it's also overhung by an air of menace that makes the playwright's small scale view of peaceful connections on a larger scale a case of wishful thinking. When Edna and Ramin appear on stage rather than in Mahid's and Thomas's conversation there's actually a good deal of humor, but Edna's knick-knack filled seaside home is a natural environment for that already mentioned aura of menace to explode. Only a spoilsport would go into details about that explosion, so just rest assured that no play about the volatile tensions that have involved this country in two wars can go from lights up to lights down without something unnerving happening and it's a safe bet that this play's darker aspects are most likely to involve the two characters who mirror the viewpoints of those who have supported and exacerbated those tensions.
Overall, this is a quiet and somewhat too talky play. Though much of that talk is well written, there's an inevitable tilt towards polemics and forced metaphor. Mahida obviously represents the educated, modern citizens of countries like Iran and Iraq. Ramin is proof that even someone raised in enlightened homes might, in a period of rebellion or insecurity, is easily seduced by a religion which asks only obedience.
Thomas is obviously a philosophical stand-in for the playwright. When Mahida says that she's upset and embarassed by the way her brother has acted since studying with extreme fundamentalists, he tells her that he too hasn't been a happy U.Ss citizen, feeling embarrassed by his country in which "the presumptions of some of the folks who govern us from time to time are massive, and I personally believe responsible for how torn apart the world is right now. Making it such a dangerous place to live." (The playwright's program notes say much the same thing). His fears and hopes — and the play's title— are summed up in a painting interpreted by Mahida (whose unfinished story inspired it) to Thomas's mother: "Do you see? There is a wolf and a little girl with a shadow. This wolf has no shadow on the ground like the girl. They are standing before a high stone wall. At the end of a meadow. I think they have come to a place where they can go no further. Their way is blocked by a locked gate in this wall. . . But in the tree over here, above the wolf, is a bird. A friendly white dove who has the shadow of a raven. Right here in the air above the wolf. And in the beak of the dove, she has a key. But in this shadow, the shadow of the raven, there are two more keys. Maybe even more."
Director Will Pomerantz elicits vivid performances from all four actors, though one can't help wishing he had helped Roxanna Hope to go easy on the accent that's so thick that it's at times difficult to understand her. His crafts team is also excellent, especially set designer Mimi Lien. I don't usually like a lot of fussy scenery shifts between acts, but it was fascinating to watch the setup from the bare seaside ferry dock to Edna's house. If I have a major complaint about Pomerantz's staging, it's that by moving the actors so far upstage in the final stage, a crucial incident preceding that finale is likely to be unnoticed by the audience.
Russell Davis who is also a professional juggler has made a game try at bringing his juggling skills to this play, juggling the requirement that going to the theater should provoke thought but also entertain — a mission that also describes the Epic Theater which is producing Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven. If Davis doesn't quite balance philosophical rumination and solidly entertaining theater, he does leave us hoping that Mahida's and Thomas's way of looking at life will one of these days prevail over the intolerant extremist views of the Ednas and Ramins of this world.