THE FORCE OF FAMILY
Looming over this long multi-generational family epic by Adrianna Sevahn Nicholas is the shadow of genocide—the 1915 slaughter by Turks of 1.5 million Armenians, a precursor, as the Nazis admitted, to their concept of a “final solution.” It haunts the matriarch of an extended family of Armenian expatriates, even after they’ve reached the supposed safety of a new world named New York. The question is whether the slaughter will continue to create new victims long after the survivors have left their killing fields.
At the beginning of this formidable memory play, a character imagines a forgotten room where discarded dreams are kept. But there are so many discarded dreams by play’s end that the extensive script, which gives us much to admire in a lovely and striking production by Silk Road Rising, suffers from an embarrassment of riches. Before the nearly 3-hour play concludes, Nicholas manages to heal a lot of recognizable wounds, sometimes, regrettably, at the cost of clichés about the complex but beneficent memories of a homeland without security.
With compelling compassion for her creations (if not always for the patience of her audience), Nicholas uses flashbacks and rolling exposition to slowly turn the pages of a very thick family album. We see Alice Oghidanian, a woman plagued by her past, and her forward-looking husband Ardavazt as they meet, marry and set up a gasoline station/tea restaurant for other journeyers. To protect his fragile wife from too much excitement, Ardavazt forbids her to perform—a passion fully exploited by his daughter Ava who, later in Act II, performs in Las Vegas and marries Bienvenido Raymundo, a sultry Dominican opera singer.
Like Ardavazt, whose tough love turns too protective, and Alice, who is institutionalized and endures electroshock therapy to deal with her memories of massacre back home, Ava and Bienvenido have their own rocky relationship. But a timely and prolonged visit by Ava’s papa returns her to her roots and gives her daughter Estrella a rich appreciation of the beautiful nights over Erzinga, a cherished collective memory that Turkish atrocities cannot efface. (It’s there that Ardavzt’s father used his telescope to connect his family to the stars, a far more certain realm than the troubled land around them.)
Nichols does not soft-peddle the challenges of the generation gap and the identity crisis that a slow assimilation into American life can trigger. So it’s strange that, though doggedly specific in domestic affairs, she’s vague about the actual years in which they happen (Nichols never makes it clear just how quickly the future lovers escaped from their ravaged homeland, for example). Happily, a mention of the stock market crash later establishes that we’re in the 30’s, but more chronological clues would be appreciated. The program provides abundant information about the timeline from earlier atrocities to the mass slaughter of 1915, but it would be much easier if there was a simple mention that the action occurs between 1900 and 1985. It would anchor the actuality in a specific time frame and make it clear that this is not a formulaic family but one rooted in time as much as in place. When a play is only selectively generic, it triggers a contradiction; there is universality, but it is conditional.
And yet, these misgivings about the script don’t alter the fact that there are some wonderful scenes; the ambitious play, if pruned of its obviousness, shows promise. The script is simply too filmic in nature. On stage, it’s a stronger dramatic device to see the effects of the Armenian genocide – and the horror, dread, and pain that entails – on both expatriates and the future generations who try to make a new life for themselves. But because of the flashbacks, the audience is already aware of the atrocities; thus, the play loses a much-needed punch when characters ultimately reveal those terrifying memories.
The wonder and worth of this sprawling show is the T.L.C. that director Lisa Portes pours into every scene. No snapshot in this album goes unremarked or untreasured. Playing Ardavazt and Alice as young and old partners, Sandra Delgado, Levi Holloway, Rom Barkhordar, and Diana Simonzadeh manage to be both astonishingly familiar and exotically unique, looking forward and backward as much as Rome’s Janus ever managed. Representing the third generation, Nicolas Gamboa and Delgado turn the culture clash that energizes and threatens their marriage into a series of gripping revelations. Michael Salinas switches wonderfully well between several portrayals, and Carolyn Hoerdemann is radiant even as she tackles seven disparate characters.
None of this occurs without some emotional button-pushing from an unashamedly sentimental script. But it’s Silk Road’s singular success that a sterling cast manages to make the manipulation matter.
photos by Michael Brosilow
Night Over Erzinga
Silk Road Rising at Pierce Hall at The Historic Chicago Temple Building
scheduled to end on November 11, 2012
for tickets, call 312-857-1234 x 201 or visit http://www.silkroadrising.org
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com