One part romantic dramedy, one part recent world history lesson and an all-encompassing story of human resilience and possibility, “Yasmina’s Necklace” is a substantial addition to Goodman Theatre’s 2017/2018 season slate.
Chicago-based playwright Rohina Malik and director Ann Filmer collaborate to bring this excellent production to life with familiarity and respect. The two female artists developed a successful rhythm in 2016, working together on the play’s premiere at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, Illinois. Their comfort with the material — and each other — is evident in the faultless fluidity with which thought, word and action roll across Goodman’s Owen Theatre stage.
Per the press material synopsis, “Yasmina’s Necklace… explores two disparate Muslim families coming together as their children embark on a relationship.” This simple plot description is accurate as well as discreet, for the story transcends continental, cultural, racial and social divisions to yield a piece of art that is uniquely American. And uniquely appropriate viewing for this particular moment in history.
Nearly 15 years after our country’s spurious post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, more than six years after the commencement of the Syrian civil war and as President Trump’s nativist positions yield ideological and legal clashes over immigration and refugee policies, “Yasmina’s Necklace” forces audiences to take a look at the human costs of these events in totality. Blowing across the stage in gorgeous, intense gusts of pain, emotion and love, Malik’s script is a moving realization of the titular character’s paintings in all their complexity.
Sussan Jamshidi brings a formidable combination of strength and vulnerability to the role of Yasmina, “a young Iraqi artist who has hardened herself against the possibility of finding happiness after fleeing to Chicago from her war-torn homeland.” The refugee is tough and weary, however her personal trials have not diminished a will to help others escape terror.
Nor has Yasmina lost the ability to dream and create in inverse proportions to the limited emotional range on exterior display. Jamshidi, who also brought life to the character in 16th Street Theater’s 2016 production, treats her alter ego like the uncommon, modern social justice warrior she is. The actress’ performance fully exhibits the dignity Yasmina deserves.
The storyline stretches a full year between Yasmina’s initial meeting with Sam (Michael Perez), an American-born “salad” Muslim, born to an Iraqi father and Puerto Rican mother. Sam’s confusion about marriage, corporate marketability and social mobility is reflected by a struggle with his given name, and stands in contrast to Yasmina’s wounded self-assurance. The duo’s initial dislike for one another is as organic as the attraction that develops over time.
Though the cast turns in lovely work without exception, it is no accident that the two women who grace the stage completely own the material. As Sam’s socially anxious but doting mother Sara, Laura Crotte is a marvel gifted with equal portions of comedic timing and dramatic presence. A theoretical distaste for aligning her family with blue collar refugees is quickly cast aside as Sara grows in love and appreciation for Yasmina and her father Musa (a completely winning Rom Barkhordar). Crotte gives audiences the biggest laughs as well as aching moments of quiet tenderness. She is astounding.
Allen Gilmore, a Jeff Award-nominee who impressed me in last spring’s “Objects in the Mirror,” is back on the Goodman stage as Imam Kareem, the spiritual advisor who helps Yasmina, Sam and their respective families navigate the challenges of uniting varied experiences into a cohesive, healthy present and future. My companion for the evening, never accused of possessing a strong memory, identified Gilmore from “Objects” without a need to open his program. In response to a quizzical look, he responded, “It’s that voice. I’d recognize it anywhere.” Fitting then that Glimore is cast as an authority, one happily lacking in condemnation and open to change. This forward-thinking imam even follows the Paleo diet.
“Yasmina’s Necklace” is full of wonderful surprises, heartrending emotion and excellent dramatic and technical work. A must see.
“Yasmina’s Necklace” runs through November 19 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3820 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.