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 Persian women whom we meet helping a bride to get ready on her big day, participating in the age-old ritual. She may be the one getting married but this is a team effort. The women’s banter echoes with the intimacy of what women say to eachother when no men are around. However, as the dates projected on the wall behind them foreshadow, their playful delight will be short lived. It is 1978. They are weeks away from the deposing of the Shah and the chaos that will ensue.
These actresses are flawless. Their dialogue flows so easily you would think they had all known each other for a long time. 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. Rana and Nazanin (Marjan Neshat), have a bond stronger than friendship. 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. Meshat is an exceptional actress.
As they fuss over the bride Salme (Roxanna Hope Radja), on a nearby couch Shideh (Artemis Pebdani) and Zari (Nikki Massoud) are busy with a pedicure. These ‘girlish’ activities — waxing, makeup, nails — comprise a recognizable iconography of femininity that repeats throughout the play. As the culture becomes more opprssive, 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 anticipaton 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 her 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 plans to become a doctor but you also sense her longing to have a wedding of her own. Zari, on the other hand, is bright-eyed and sure. Marriage? check. Happy future? check. Massoud bubbles with this sentiment, yet as the play goes on she matures and grows in 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, as does the music that plays through the scene changes – 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 being attacked by the words that describe them. Rather, Toossi makes sure each character is seen, and in turn we 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, as an apt metaphor for their lives. Fluttering birds tethered to long graceful arms, but a trap is a trap.
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.