Directed by Seth Bockley
Produced by Victory Gardens Theater
New Play Badly Needs Rebirth
Playwrights often run into trouble when they attempt to take on big themes without much experience. Samsara, now having its world premiere after two years of development at Victory Gardens, is one example of a play that’s meant to comment on everything from international relations, to family, to mystical explanations for death. But while recent playwriting MFA Lauren Yee is aware of a multiplicity of theatrical devices, she doesn’t apparently have much to say about those subjects, and mangles what she does.
The story begins with a San Francisco couple, Criag and Katie (Joe Dempsey and Lori Meyers), who hope to have a child. Unfortunately, Katie has a uterus tumor that will prevent her from bearing children. They plan to use a surrogate, sending out her egg cells and Craig’s sperm. However, American surrogates are expensive, and Craig’s construction job and Katie’s work filing grant applications for a non-profit make them firmly middle-middle class. So they apply for a surrogate in India, and are paired with Suraiya (Arya Daire), an aspiring doctor in Ahmedabad who is no longer welcome among her relatives.
As the due date nears, Katie informs Craig she will not be flying to India to watch their child’s birth. Having never traveled internationally before, Craig is rather forlorn to be in the unenviable position of attempting to navigate India completely by himself, and struggles even to get across the street. Meanwhile, Suraiya had promised herself never to have children, but is getting lonely under the hospital’s oppressive rules. She imagines the fetus as a child (Behzad Dabu) who provides her with company and affection. Though aware she is only fantasizing, she cannot help getting attached to what she convinced herself was not in her life plan. Back in America, Katie has nightmares that her child will be Indian and feel no connection to her. She finds solace in imagining a Frenchman (Jeff Parker), who persuades her to quit her job, has sex with her, and listens to her vent about Craig’s inadequacies.
The actors all carry their own. The best scenes are between the bouncy Dabu, an ideal son who adores his mother but sees through her self-deceit, and Daire, a self-contained intellectual woman who longs for someone she can lovingly teach the Ramayana to. Dempsey’s Craig is not particularly assertive or sensitive at the beginning. He becomes more so later on as he makes friends with Suraiya, but “average” pretty much defines him. Parker plays two characters: the fantasy Frenchman, and a ludicrously monstrous British doctor at the clinic. Katie imagines the Frenchman as clever, sneering, and cultured because her parents were French Canadians and far wealthier than she is now, so she feels superior to her surroundings. She is frankly a despicable character whose irresponsibility is matched only by her selfishness, and that really hurts a show that purports to be all about compassionate, nuanced portraits of peoples’ spiritual struggles.
Joe Schermoly’s abstract scene design uses a massive lattice as its backdrop, similar to decorations in Sidi Saiyyed Mosque. Of course Indians do go about their lives amid Islamic architectural heritage, but I wondered about the prominence of this in a show named after a Hindu/Buddhist concept. The play briefly describes samsara instead of exploring it, and in an interview in the program, Yee says she used it as a title after reading about it on Wikipedia. That’s annoying in a show that takes pokes at Americans for using India without understanding it, and made me sensitive to things as small as arguable misuse of the Urdu word shukriya. The early part of the play attempts to maintain audience interest through witless bathroom humor and presenting hijras as comedic drag queens in the American characters’ nightmares without ever really making clear it’s the American misperceptions being mocked. The dramatic latter half depends on a revelation regarding Craig’s infertility that I’m pretty sure directly contradicts previously stated information, and at the very least is unclear. Although the acting is strong, and the script has some good moments, after years of development it still is shallow and confused.
Reviewed February 13, 2015
For more information, see Samsara’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue. For tickets, call 773-871-3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org. Tickets are $15-60 with group discounts. Plays March 3 at 7:30 pm, and Wednesday through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through March 8. Also plays at 4:00 pm on February 21 and 28 and March 7. No performance March 5. February 25 performance is at 2:00 pm instead of 7:30 pm. ASL interpreted performance on March 6 at 7:30 pm. Running time is one hundred minutes with no intermission.