Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

URGE FOR GOING at the Public Theater

“I get the urge for goin’, but I never seem to go…” — Joni Mitchell 

Omid Abtahi and Tala Ashe as Jul and Jamila

It’s extraordinarily difficult to write about the Middle East: to make it accessible and vital for all audiences, to avoid didacticism and heavy exposition, to create a personal, not  distanced, experience. In its first few minutes, Urge for Going walks a dangerous line between these extremes: a family of four Palestinians argue passionately about the facts (if there is such a thing) regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as they speak directly to us, their audience, their students. I found myself thankful for the concise, even humorous, lesson and at the same time terribly worried that the next 90 minutes would encompass more of — and only — the same.

Thankfully, playwright Mona Mansour is much, much smarter than that.

The deceptively simple play follows Jamila, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl growing up in a Lebanese refugee camp, as she desperately attempts to escape the restriction of her desolate home. To do so, she requires the assistance of her greatest inspiration, her brilliant scholar-father, who proves heartbreakingly resistant to her quest. Mansour seamlessly weaves sharply detailed moments of political and social context within the tropes of the family drama: Jul, Jamilia’s brother, has what we assume to be a mental disability until, in a dreamy retelling in which he has all of his mental capacities,  it’s revealed a neurological condition resulting from an initially innocent, but ultimately violent altercation with Israeli soldiers.

What’s extraordinary about this piece is its ability to surprise. So many assumptions are squashed, repeatedly, throughout the course of the deftly packed play. This isn’t kitchen-sink realism: Mansour plays with form in subtle and poignant ways, and assisted by the gentle guidance of director Hal Brooks, she manages to surprise us in content as well. While the overly determined Jamila (an endearing Tala Ashe) stays up day and night memorizing flash cards and reciting poetry so that she can escape to college and experience all the world has to offer, her father turns his back on a cush and prestigious life in London only to become encaged in squalid quarters in Lebanon. This familial dichotomy is richly reinforced with a superb cast of supporting characters: upon his sister’s departure, Jul (sweetly portrayed by Omid Abtahi), softly reveals he’ll always think of her when he “looks at the night sky, because [she] is the direction [he] wants to go,” and Jamila’s mother (a strong and brilliant Jacqueline Antaramian) quietly supports her daughter while staunchly remaining by her husband and brothers’ sides in Lebanon. In all their youthful optimism and inexperience, Jamila and Jul did not understand what their parents had discovered the hard way, long ago:  home would only exist for them when they no longer had it within reach.

Despite its very specific surface of political and cultural strife, Urge for Going is really about home — the land, but also the culture, family, and the overwhelming, indescribable feelings associated with that heavily weighted word. Beautifully complex and rich in both character and story, this production is a surprise from its first moment until its last, and Mona Mansour’s multifaceted talent is the biggest — and most wonderful — surprise of all.

~ ~ ~

Urge for Going is a production of the Public’s Lab, conceived in association with LAByrinth Theater Company:  a developmental workshop that presents minimally designed productions with short rehearsal periods. The production runs until April 17th.

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This entry was posted on April 7, 2011 by in Off-Broadway, Reviews, Theatre Reviews.

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