by SOPHIE KERMAN
Some topics are so serious, so immediate, and so tragic that it is better to deny audiences the catharsis they often seek at the theater. This is the case with Kiomars Moradi and Porya Azarbayjani‘s devastating Love Letters from the Middle East, a trio of monologues about the plight of women affected by the upheaval in Afghanistan and Iraq. Featuring an Iraqi woman trying to negotiate a complicated immigration system in England, an Afghani burn victim looking for international financial assistance for reconstructive surgery, and the wife of an American solider missing in action, Love Letters looks unblinkingly at some of the cruelest things humanity has become.
Each of the three “love letters” could easily be turned into an uplifting tale of community support or personal resilience in times of crisis, but as in real life, there are no easy answers to be found in this play. Yet Moradi and Azarbayjani also avoid coming across as exploitative or voyeuristic into the pain of their subjects: they allow each woman to tell her story fully and completely, without a trace of self-pity. Moradi’s direction is simple and raw, allowing actresses Emily Rose Duea, Alyssa Perau, and Meredith Larson to immerse themselves fully into their characters with no distracting scenic elements. All three performances are strong and each has breathtaking moments, although Duea particularly stands out in the second monologue, which boasts both the most challenging subject matter and a more richly developed script.
The play concludes with a photo slideshow which, unfortunately, somewhat disrupts the balance of the three monologues. Ken Epstein‘s photographs are intensely moving, shot with compassion and artistry despite their brutality; however, they do tip the scales towards one of the three monologues, making the other two feel like companion pieces rather than equal voices. This imbalance may be apt, as the photos and monologue deal with a shocking and inhumane practice. Be forewarned, though, these pictures are a challenge to sit through.
You will probably spend the last act waiting for a shining moment of hope to break through, or you may leave the theater looking to buy peace of mind with a $10 donation to some NGO or other, but there is no easy escape. Love Letters is not needlessly bleak; it is simply realistic, giving voice to characters whose stories might not otherwise be told. Although its subject matter makes it a challenging piece to watch, the show’s artistic and political strength lies in its refusal to provide a tidy resolution to unanswerable questions.
Love Letters from the Middle East by Kiomars Moradi and Porya Azarbayjani. Presented by the Hope Theater Company, November 7 – November 17, 2013 at Dreamland Arts, 677 Hamline Ave. N., St. Paul. Tickets $15; $10 for seniors and students. Purchase tickets at 651- 645-5506 or online at www.dreamlandarts.com. More information is about the play is available at www.hopetheatercompany.com.