Spring of Freedom, Summer of Fear at Lowry Lab Theatre

Table Salt Productions premiered the third new work in its first season, offering a personal look at a moment in the revolution which transformed Iran’s political picture in the early 1980’s. This was writer Ali Ravi’s first foray into dramatizing what was a partly fictionalized account of his own family’s experience.

The family of a retired general (Rob Frankel) in the Shah’s Air Force is visited late at night by three soldiers of the revolutionary guard. The soldiers have been told to search the house for subversive materials and, if necessary, seize the house. Their captain (Nathan Tyulutki) is reasonably polite for much of the evening’s invasion into their living room; Amir (Luke Weber) is a bitter, angry – and therefore, dangerous – young soldier toting an automatic weapon. It doesn’t help that he appears to be illiterate, as well. The third, Hossein (Jason Zednick), is a perfectly likeable chap who just wants to get through each day without hurting anybody. His grandmother is played by Andrea Guildord.

The general’s family includes his 12-year-old grandson, Ali (Mickey Mittman), Ali’s mother (Dorian Chalmers) and grandmother (Gail Ottmar). Ali’s dead father, played by Tylutki, appears to Ali, apparently to help him through the evening’s potentially dangerous events.

Another spirit is active in this drama, but the Angel, played by Laressa Dickey, has no specific connection to the family and interacts, in the detached way that a ghost would, with all the characters. Costuming the statuesque, dark-haired and pale complected Dickey in a flowing, white Persian gown created the most visually interesting element of the play.

What drives the conflict is the simmering tension between those who actively supported the revolution and those who were typically among the well-to-do and didn’t. Soldiers, the play reveals, didn’t all carry the same degree of animosity for former Shah loyalists, and harbored a simple and personal, rather than politically motivated, dislike for their wealthier counterparts. The conflict, you might say, was just not that clear cut in real life.

In a post-play discussion, Ravi shared his view that “there is always more than one side to the story.” By allowing his characters to present their versions of the play’s decisive moments, we were able to understand each character’s motivation for their behavior. But as an audience we wanted more tension. The trick was to create it from the unnerving ambivalence of the moment, rather than turning the soldiers into stereotypical psychopaths.

I believe that Ravi is a fine storyteller, and he certainly has an ear for the smallest, but most telling, details. The challenge for him was transferring that gift to a dramatic rendering on stage. Fortunately, choreographer Matt Guidry seemed completely comfortable traversing the two art forms, flowing to and fro around dance, pantomime, and dialogue, and nicely knitting together the memory scenes, which helped us understand how the character’s past life experiences were very present in their responses to the moment. In addition, the Angel’s dancing and watchful gestures reassured us that there could be a larger force at work, building hope and ultimate reconciliation.

Daniel Ellis’ direction, however, was not helping Ravi’s irregular script. A rhythm we could hook into, and pacing to build the arc, create the suspense and resolve it was missing. It was like riding a bike on a level road.

The most interesting thing about this play was that it refused to sensationalize the simple reality of the story. Ravi’s adherence to the truth, if not all the facts, about what happened made for sticky solutions to the problem of creating a cohesive dramatic piece. Ravi could take a tip from Shakespeare, who rarely concerned himself with historical accuracy. A detail: Ravi was 12 years old when the incident on which the play is based took place. However, an adult played the role, but why not just change the age of his character? At age 15, the story still works, and Mittman, who gave us a fine bit of acting, would have had a fair shot at a more believable character. Good drama grabs us by the shirtfront and shakes us up a bit, rattling our perceptions about what is and is not “true.” Sometimes to do that, the theater has to stray from the facts.
However, this is still an interesting tale – especially for those of us who remember the overthrow of the Shah, and its disturbing aftermath.

Spring of Freedom, Summer of Fear runs through April 3.

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