By Sarah Downs
Sanaz Toossi is fast becoming one of my favorite playwrights. She has an uncanny gift with language, conjuring a whole world in simple conversation, layering laughter on vulnerability with delicate subtlety. Her words echo in your mind long after the final curtain.
Wish You Were Here follows the lives of five vivacious Iranian women whom we meet helping one among them prepare for her wedding day, participating in an age-old ritual as they attend to every detail. The bride may be the one getting married but this is a team effort. The women’s banter echoes with the intimacy of long friendship, and what women say to each other when no men are around. However, as the date projected on the wall behind them foreshadows, their playful delight will be cut short. It is 1978. We are within months of the deposing of the Shah and the chaos that will ensue.
These actresses are flawless. Their friendship is as believable as the dialogue that flows so easily among them. You would think they had all known each other for a long time. The intersection of their friendships, ever changing, ever constant, is the gyre that centers the play. Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch guides with an expert hand, keeping the threads of their connection delicate, taut and strong.
Rana (Nazanin Nour) is the funny, glamorous sophisticate – the instigator, the rebel — qualities Nour exudes effortlessly. She and Nazanin (Marjan Neshat) share a bond deeper than friendship. They dream of life abroad together; roommates on an adventure in a world of possibility. Their personalities complement each other – Where Rana is sexy and effervescent, Nazarin is earnest, intelligent and prickly. As Nazanin, Meshat captures the essence of a woman whose ambition and vulnerability fight for supremacy. She is an exceptional actress.
As they fuss over the bride Salme (Roxanna Hope Radja), who is bright-eyed with the fulfillment of her dream of marriage and family, on a nearby couch Shideh (Artemis Pebdani), the youngest of them and Zari (Nikki Massoud), slightly older thant the others, are busy with a pedicure. These ‘girlish’ activities — waxing, makeup, nails — comprise a recognizable iconography of femininity that appears throughout the play. As the culture becomes more oppressive, these feminine rituals go underground, a secret that reminds them them of the freedom they once enjoyed. A freedom that was their right.
Radja as Salme conveys the happy/scared anticipation of the mystery of the wedding night, without overdoing it. Her acting is so subtle that when we see her a few months later, Radja adds an intangible layer of disappointment. The bloom is off the rose. As she becomes more religious you wonder if Radja’s zeal is authentic or if she is attempting to fit in to post-Shah reality. Is prayer an escape, a plea, a contract?
As Shideh, Pebdani projects a lovely, natural warmth. She feels very contemporary. Shideh is taking steps to become a doctor but you also sense her longing to have a wedding of her own, a longing tinged with perhaps a fear she may has missed her time. Zari, on the other hand, is giggly and sure of what she wants. Marriage? check. Happy future? check. Massoud bubbles with this sentiment, yet as the narrative progresses she matures in quiet solemnity.
The action takes place on a single, homey set by Arnulfo Maldonado, which instantly locates the narrative in a comfortable, suburban space. Reza Behjat‘s uncomplicated lighting has subtle drama that tracks with the passage of time, along with the succession of years projected on the back wall of the set. The music that plays through the scene changes also evolves – classical in style, with violin and piano, hints of Chopin, and at times a tinge of Eastern melody. Seasons change with each arpeggio.
Toossi draws her characters with precision and empathy. They need not fear the words that give them life on script will miss their mark. Rather, Toossi makes sure each individual character is seen and in turn we as onlookers feel seen. At one point the girls break out into an impromptu dance. The actresses’ hands trace through the air like birds. This is a language their hands understand. It is beautiful and a little terrifying at the same time – an apt metaphor for their lives. Fluttering birds tethered to long graceful arms, but not all birds flee the nest. As the grip of oppression tightens, what of their future?
Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Design), Sarah Laux (Costume Design), Reza Behjat (Lighting Design), Sinan Refik Zafar & Brian Hickey (Sound Design), Vanessa Coakley (Production Stage Manager).
At Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd St.) Runs May 3rd through JUNE 5th. For Tickets click HERE or call the box office at 212-564-1235. Runtime 100 minutes with no intermission. Playwrights Horizons requires all audience members to provide proof of full vaccination and wear face masks at all times while at the theater.