Directed by Lavina Jadhwani
Produced by Rasaka Theatre Company
At Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater, Chicago
A Play of No Great Romance
The mission of Rasaka Theatre Company – the first South Asian theatre company in the Midwest, one of the oldest South Asian theatres in the country, and a current member of Victory Gardens’ Resident Theater Program – is to increase diversity among artists and audiences by illuminating the South Asian experience, at home and abroad. Rasaka’s current production A Widow of No Importance does well to illuminate just such an experience abroad with wit, humor, and a well-structured story. And yet, despite that, running at over two hours, its sit-com/telenovela-eque performances and predictable plot end up trying its audience’s credulity and patience more than contributing to their delight.
The place is Mumbai, India; the year, 2010; the unimportant widow, Deepa (Alka Nayyar). We open to find Deepa, adorned in a white gown and shawl, praying, promising to remain true to her new role of self-sacrifice as a widow – a figure, we learn, stigmatized in Indian culture. Yet Deepa’s role as mother is not yet finished either: her 25-year-old daughter, Tara (Vahishta Vafadari), has yet to be married; and Tara’s Western-influenced lifestyle of partying and out-of-wedlock sex does not promise much for Deepa’s motherly obligation to see her daughter married to a successful Indian suitor.
While Deepa – with the aid of her busy-body friend Lalitha (Priya Mohanty) – attempts to get Tara to seriously consider an arranged marriage, Deepa finds herself falling unexpectedly in love with the divorcee Vinod (Anand Bhatt) – none other than her son’s childhood friend. Such a (secret) relationship being already complicated, it becomes even more so when Vinod catches Tara’s eye and Deepa must choose between her responsibility as a mother and widow and the desire of her own heart.
A Widow of No Importance – a titular and thematic nod to Oscar Wilde’s play A Woman of No Importance – shows demonstrates a near-perfect execution of storytelling structure and thematic counterpoint (social customs v.s. individual desire) that harkens back to the style and subject of 19th century plays that addressed social norms.
However, perhaps for that very reason, the story feels very predictable and old – as in, “Where have I seen this before?” There is nothing, sadly, to upend our expectations of what will eventually happen: somehow we know at the start that, by some slight of the writer’s hand, Deepa’s two objectives – a suitor for her daughter and a lover for herself – will come into conflict and her secret must come out. In a tragedy, such inevitability would crank up our tension and anxiety, scene by painful scene, until the climax finally wrenches open our breasts and all our emotion floods out in tears and screams. But in a comedy such as this, despite the importance placed upon Deepa’s social and familial conflicts, we the audience are assured of the ending reserved for such lighthearted occasions: a happy one. Thus, the story is unexciting and offers us little incentive to return after the intermission, except a few more laughs.
As far as performances go, I found the sit-com/telenovela stylization of the production – complete with a set that looks as lived-in as a model apartment – to confine the actors to an exaggerated, two-dimensional comedic palette. The only one who was able to reach for anything deeper with moderate success was Alka Nayyar as Deepa. But even Nayyar’s moment of sincere emotional distress had the glazed aesthetic of a Hallmark moment and fell short of inspiring any actual sympathy. And as for the romantic love between the widow and the young man – the very crux of the story – I found it as convincing as the set design: strangers on trains elicit more sexual tension.
A Widow of No Importance will offer many clean, honest laughs for those partial to the exaggerated humor of the sit-com, but for those looking for an original, romantic story to fall in love with, they might be disappointed to find that the play becomes predictable early on, making its two-and-a-half hour run time a rather high price to pay for a flat-line romance and a conclusion that only confirms one’s expectations. If theatres are making diversity and the telling of lesser-told stories their missions, they might do better to think up more intriguing and diverse ways to tell those stories. After all, we haven’t heard these stories yet, right?
Reviewed on January 17th, 2016.
Playing at the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.