Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven

Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven is the fourth play we saw during the previous weekend. It is a small play in a small theatre about a very big subject. Nothing less than the struggles that occur when East meets West.

Mahida is an Iranian woman who has come to the United States to be a University student and has fallen in love with reading and studying literature. She is a beautiful character, with a personality that seems to be a rich mix of Eastern and Western qualities. She is formal, serious, and exceptionally courteous, but also open, curious, and emotionally vulnerable. She meets an Anglo man, who is visiting his mother, by the lonely pier of an unnamed island community. It is not clear why she is there but she says she was to meet her brother who apparently has been delayed. It is late, there are no more ferries to the mainland, and no hotels are available either. The man who does not seem to like his rather closed-minded mother very much and appears to be looking for companionship is clearly drawn to Mahida. He invites her to spend the night at his mother's home and makes every effort to demonstrate to Mahida that his intentions are entirely honorable, which, in fact, they are. After some moments of hesitation, she agrees to do this, and in the next scene we see her awaking on the living room couch as the man's mother quietly enters.

As the man's mother converses with Mahida, we learn rather quickly how suspicious of strangers she is and how readily she stereotypes Mahida. Mahida, however, seems unconcerned and very effectively brushes off whatever is objectionable in the mother's words and demeanor. She joins the man in a long walk along the pier near the mother's home and shows a deep appreciation for the man's love of art and his desire to pursue life as an artist, an ambition ridiculed by his mother. In the meantime, the brother finally shows up while the two young people are away and insists on waiting for his sister in the mother's home. Though wary, she allows this, and they gradually launch into a full scale debate regarding the virtues of cultural life in the United States versus cultural life in Iran. We learn that the brother quit university in Iran to join a Madrassa where a radical approach to Islam is taught, and we, as audience members, gradually see that these two are ciphers for the many dogmatic people who populate both countries. Neither is open to the other's perspectives, both are deeply suscious of the other. The brother, however, seems more physically threatening and tension grows as their conversation becomes increasingly heated.

The action then switches back to the man and Mahida who return from their walk to find only the brother waiting for them. The brother claims at first that the mother has gone out, but the man knows his mother would never vacate her home while a stranger lingered there. We await the revelation that the brother has somehow harmed the mother when the brother suddenly strikes out in a most alarming way. Everything on stage begins to scatter (sitting in the first row, we almost got hit with flying debris), as the brother puts the man in a hammerlock and a stranglehold from which he cannot escape and hisses that this is what it is like to be caught, to be trapped, to be imprisoned in one's own home. The stage goes dark and the final scene shows the man, Mahida, and the man's mother with a terrible bruise on her face leaving the island on the ferry. They say very little but the mother is now completely silenced.

In some ways, this is a flawed play. Having the brother inflict violence on the mother seems like a questionable move to me, as it turns us entirely against the brother and causes all of his arguments, strongly articulated in the play, to be compromised. Still, there was much food for thought, especially about America's own dogmatism and complicity in spreading violence in the Middle East, and once again, the post-performance discussion was instructive here, as far too many of the audience members took the brother to task for his fundamentalism but were almost entirely blind to the mother's own intolerance and closed-mindedness.

To quickly conclude, I just want to say I am increasingly grateful for the many lessons provocative theatre can teach. This is the kind of theatre I find myself yearning for and often finding in New York. As a postscript, let me add that we saw the much acclaimed God of Carnage last night. Superbly acted play, very funny and very clever, but, for me, a little empty, lacking some of that insight into the human condition that I think I have received from less celebrated but, in many ways, more thoughtful productions.

1 comment:

  1. I want to be entertained by theater and I'm willing to be challenged if, in the process, I'm still engaged and diverted. But I'm not willing to give up entertainment for 'meaning' or 'substance'. And what I'm really hoping for is one of those performances that completely takes me in as if I am a secret witness to true life so that, at the end, I have been unaware of the story telling and simply privileged to have witnessed the events. But I'm happy with 'glad I came'.