Theater

The Persian Quarter

The relationship between America and Iran is often understood through headlines and sound bites that report events but do very little to explore the issues beyond the context of politics. In her latest work, which is also a world premiere, local Utah playwright Kathleen Cahill puts the tension between our two countries in a context that reminds us to look deeper and remember that the people on both sides of a controversy are human.

The Persian Quarter performed by the Salt Lake Acting Company examines foreign relations in a unique way. Cahill paints an intriguing picture with her characters Ann and Shirin, a captor and hostage respectively, in the foreground, with the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979 in the background. Framing her work are the words of Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet. At the age of 22 Cahill went to the city of Tehran in Iran to teach English and was fascinated by the way poetry permeates the culture there; this and other impressions and experiences from Iran are woven in to the production.

From the outset of the play Rumi’s presence, evoked by Shane Mozaffari, invites the audience to explore the relationship between Ann and Shirin from a gentle perspective that acknowledges both women as individuals worthy of compassion. Ann, played by Nell Gwynn, is an American teaching English in Tehran who is held captive for 443 days before she encounters Shirin — played by Deena Marie Manzanares — an Iranian woman who brings food to her and also has a deep interest in literature. A conversation is initiated by Shirin and the two begin a discussion that covers everything from politics to famous authors. Throughout the dialogue their relationship tentatively transforms from one of mutual distrust, with accusations of Ann being a spy and Shirin being a murderer, to one with moments of genuine connection.


In one memorable moment there is a discussion about Shirin’s traditional clothing. Ann takes a Western stance and points to it as oppressive. Shirin counters that she wears it because it is something unique to her culture, she wears it to celebrate something distinctly Eastern, without any Western influence.

The interactions between Ann and Shirin are a core element of the play. They offer poignant insights through characters so believable it’s easy to forget the story is only happening on stage. A little of that is lost in the second half when Ann’s daughter Emily, also played by Gwynn, has a chance encounter at Columbia University with Shirin’s daughter Azadeh, played by Manzanares. Emily is there to photograph Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, and Azadeh has chosen that day as the first meeting of her Rumi Poetry Club.

Emily is portrayed as a jaded American who has very little interest in history or literature. She is more concerned with pop culture and making it downtown on time to photograph Brittany Spears. Azadeh is both charming and irritating in her persistence that Emily should understand the history of Iran and embrace the poetry of Rumi. In their exchange the message overshadows the characters while in the first half the characters conveyed the message. It’s true that some Americans do not have a keen grasp of history and many women in today’s generation are disconnected from their mothers experiences. Cahill drives this point home with the contrast between Emily and Azadeh. More than anything this contrast defines them, but at times it is difficult to relate to because the first half of the play was spent rejecting this kind of polarization.

Like the interaction between their mothers the scene with Emily and Azadeh does raise some very important points about how we regard the perspective of someone who has opinions that appear to be radically different from our own. It looks at our modern relationship with the Middle East and asks us to realize the importance of understanding both sides of a story. As Azadeh notes, the most well-made Persian rugs have a pattern on both sides. The nature of this statement is a prevalent theme in the play and it calls to our attention that we can see the world through a more poetic lens that allows us to appreciate, if not embrace the ideas of others. In doing so we may find there is more common ground than we originally thought.

Kathleen Cahill’s The Persian Quarter is at the Salt Lake Acting Company through February 27.

You can watch a video interview with playwright Kathleen Cahill here:

 

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