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Theatre in Review: Elyria (Atlantic Theater Company)

Gulshan Mia, Nilanjana Bose. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Ambition is a great thing in a playwright but, in the case of Elyria, Deepa Purohit's reach exceeds her grasp; this tangled, multi-generational tale might test the skills of her more accomplished colleagues, and certain aspects of Awoye Timpo's direction don't prove helpful. Purohit certainly has something but wrangling her many characters and imperfectly woven plot strands proves to be something of a struggle. There's enough material here for at least eight episodes on Netflix; condensed, confusingly, into a little over two hours, one strains to keep up.

The action begins with a chance meeting, in 1982, between two Indian matrons living in the northern Ohio town of the title. It's a profound shock for both: Vasanta and Dhatta, friends in adolescence (when they were part of the Indian community in Kenya), have been estranged for decades for reasons having to do with Rohan, Dhatta's son. Indeed, Dhatta is unhappily, if falsely, convinced that Vasanta has come in search of retribution; in truth, however, this purely accidental encounter will send shock waves through both women's lives and those of their loved ones.

I hate to give away plot points, but this time it's unavoidable, so consider yourself duly warned: Rohan is really Vasanta's son by Charu, now a successful Elyria doctor. In his youth, he wouldn't marry Vasanta for reasons of caste. Instead, he wed Dhatta, who later showed up on his doorstep in London with the infant Rohan, surrendered to her by Vasanta. But, breaking a promise to Vasanta, Dhatta hasn't told Charu the truth about Rohan's paternity. (Rohan knows Dhatta isn't his mother and I guess he doesn't think Charu is his father, but one can track only so many plot lines at a time.) Vasanta, by the way, is married to Shiv, a self-described go-getter who wants to start a travel business but can't be bothered with a daily job. Other plot points include fiscal malfeasance; a shocking, eleventh-hour revelation about Vasanta's mother; and one character's closeted homosexuality. When I attend the theatre, I take notes; at Elyria, you might feel the need to do the same.

Purohit takes her time establishing Dhatta and Vasanta's marriages, in addition to a potentially explosive subplot about Rohan's personal life, only gradually establishing their many connections. The full backstory of Dhatta, Vasanta, and Charu is murkily presented; the presence of their younger selves (played by a separate trio of actors) clutters rather than clarifies the narrative, especially since the action whipsaws between past and present without warning. Also, Jason Ardizzone-West's set design removes the Atlantic's stage with a bare platform surrounded by audience on all four sides; this creates a less-than-optimum acoustical environment -- the theatre's brick walls provide unwanted reflections -- which is exacerbated by actors speaking in heavy accents and slipping in and out of the Gujarati dialect. If you're going to keep up with the plot permutations of Elyria, you'll have to listen very, very closely.

Indeed, there's so much going on -- including Shiv's attempts at playing the stock market, Dhatta and Charu's determined attempts at marrying off the unwilling Rohan, and a meeting between Vasanta and Rohan that leaves the young man baffled -- that it's difficult to know what to make of it all. Indeed, the characters often seem nonplussed by the latest twists. Whatever larger points Purohit has in mind -- about the desperate choices foisted on these women or the struggle to adapt to a Western way of life -- aren't sufficiently teased out of the soapy narrative.

Timpo's busy staging makes use of the attractive choreography of Parijat Desai, but the director might have pushed for more clarity throughout. The cast is solid, which, under the circumstances is about the best one can hope for. Nilanjana Bose and Gulshan Mia make a strong pair of semi-antagonists as Vasanta and Dhatta. Bhavesh Patel is effective as Charu, who isn't at all happy about having the past come calling. The reliable Sanjit De Silva livens things up as Shiv, who wants to call his business "Spiritual Journeys" but has no compunction about helping himself to Vasanta's hard-earned money. If Mohit Gautam often looks stunned by it all as Rohan, he has good reason and he partners effectively with Omar Shafiuzzaman as his college friend, Hassanali, who might be something more.

Filling out the scenic design are the projections by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, which include rising moons, snowfall, and bits of Bollywood films; she also provided the intensively detailed and attractive lighting design. Sarita Fellows' costumes have a solid sense of the era's excesses; she also plausibly captures the way young men like Rohan and Hassanali might dress. (Nikiya Mathis' hair designs add to the authenticity.) Amatus Karim-Ali's sound design includes country music and selections from Culture Club as well as a number of key effects and reinforcement for the compositions of Neel Murgai. With so much angst onstage, it's probably not surprising that Elyria concludes with what might be a record number of plot danglers. Indeed, the most interesting part of the story might be happening just as the lights go down for the last time. Purohit is, by any measure, a talent to watch, but she needs to lay her dramatic groundwork more clearly. More than anything, her play needs room to breathe. --David Barbour

(8 March 2023)

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