Deported/a dream play

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 20, 2012

A grandmother who kept her secrets to herself, as grandmothers commonly do, is at the heart of playwright Joyce Van Dyke's personification of the Armenian genocide.

The backdrop to her engrossing drama "Deported/a dream play" is a smoldering political standoff that continues to this day. That there even was a genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire who slaughtered some million or more Armenians in death marches across the desert to Syria (which the Turks referred to as "deporting") and whole scale massacres (1915-1923) is contested by the modern Republic of Turkey, which denies that "genocide" is an accurate description of the events.

We enter the story some dozen and more years later in 1938 and some thousand miles away in Providence, Rhode Island, one of the numerous Armenian diaspora communities that popped up throughout the world.

A survivor, Victoria sits brooding in her attic. As the traumatized mother mourning her three young children including a baby in arms who died in the forced march, Bobbi Steinbach gives a bravura performance brilliantly combining an earthy matter-of-factness in personality with an emotionally distraught inner being. The character of Victoria is based on Van Dyke's own grandmother, although the name has been changed. Other people in Victoria's life are also historical and are often given their real names. She immigrated to America in 1920.

Her mental turmoil is made evident through some potent stage devices, the most interesting of which are dancers who whirl through the attic room much as Victoria's mind twists and turns with the horror of her memories and her loss intersected with the nourishing reminders of the fabled crafts of Armenian's she loves.

Dressed in ethic attire of subdued colors from costumer Molly Trainer whose work, like all of the designers, is historically accurate and pertinent to the character's personalities, the ensemble of six "dreamers" has been choreographed by the renowned Apo Ashijian who has trained with several companies in Armenia and whose own locally based diaspora dance troupe has won international honors.

Joyce Van Dyke
Joyce Van Dyke  

The set designer, Jon Savage, gives us an attic space of older houses which has panels through which the figments of Victoria’s mental turmoil come and go, and large swaths of lace, enlargements of the bits of lace Victoria treasures from her Armenian culture are high in the rafters. Later, Savage provides spaces that work as a garden terrace in California and then a conference hall for a drama that has three acts but is performed in 100 minutes without an intermission and which, despite all the changes in locale, never leaves the audience in pits of darkness waiting for the next episode.

Victoria, who is also visited by friendly if sometime argumentative, specters from her life, responds to them conversationally until her husband, returning from work at suppertime, climbs the stairs demanding to know why his meal is not on the table.

Ken Baltlin is utterly convincing as the Armenian immigrant head of household Harry who, while missing out on the devastation of the genocide because he had come to America earlier looking for work, is seething with resentment for the mistreatment of his people and worried that his wife will go over the edge.

Much of their conversation centers on their Americanized teen-aged daughter Rose, believably and sweetly portrayed by Jeanine Kane, who is unaware that she has a brother and sisters who died much less her mother’s horrific experience.

The other character central to this drama about opening up and moving on is the cheerful Shoshana.

She is the daughter of wealthy Jews in the film business who, at home in Malibu, talked about the Holocaust "at breakfast, lunch, and dinner" according to their daughter who seems to shrug off being as emotionally mired in that genocide as deeply as her parents.

Thanks, however, to a sensitive, many dimensional performance from Liz Hayes we see this is a nonchalance that is a façade maybe unbeknownst even to her. Her placid affect in that regard is similar to Victoria’s that is a point about the psychological consequences of hiding our thoughts about our histories.

Shoshana comes into the story because she is a gatherer of oral histories for a project on the Armenian genocide that is part of the Shoah (Hebrew term for the Holocaust) Foundation housed at the University of Southern California.

Hayes is so deeply in character as the caring but supposedly emotionally uninvolved interviewer that when Harry flings the word "Holocaust" at her, she physically flinches ever so slightly revealing a pain she hides even from herself.

Harry is adamantly opposed to his wife talking openly about the Armenian genocide, embittered by the refusal of the Turkish government to concede to its very existence after years and years of petitions.

"Deported/a dream play" expertly weaves a particular history of which many of us are unaware because, in part, of its survivors’ inability to speak about it and their descendant’s ignorance of the tragedy, intertwined with a window into the state of mind of a people weighed down by a horrific past. It links importantly to many peoples’ dilemma. My great, great grandmother, for instance, immigrated to Canada from Ireland escaping the famine. I recall my mother once remarking on people she’d heard referred to as "green mouths," a giveaway stain around the lips from eating grass to assuage the hunger.

Van Dyke’s drama makes a universal statement of consequence in our understanding of why people behave in the ways they do.

A co-production of Suffolk University and the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Joyce Van Dyke’s "Deported/a dream play" continues thru Sun., April 1 at the gorgeously renovated Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, 525 Washington St., downtown Boston. For more info go to www.bostonplaywrights.org.