BWW Review: REFUGE MALJA at Portland Stage Explores the Refugee Experience
In mounting Bess Welden's new play Refuge Malja, Portland Stage seeks to tell the story of contemporary Syrian war refugees in the context of history, the Holocaust, and personal conflict. Set largely in Greece and the Middle East, it intertwines the story of two journalists, their failed romance, and the struggles they have in coming to terms with past demons and the present suffering they witness. The intersection of these dramas is laden with potential for fine storytelling, but somehow Welden never manages to weave the threads into a coherent tale. Admirable in its intent, Refuge Maljaremains a puzzling, under developed theatrical experience.
Part of the problem in the script is that the core narrative - that of journalist Jamie's stepping out of her characteristically detached observation mode to try to help a Syrian refugee boy - becomes lost in Welden's fragmented flashback style. Present lurches jarringly into past and reality into metaphor, never quite coalescing. The frequent dialogue sequences in Arabic do create a cultural flavor and are intended, no doubt, to demonstrate the hurdles in communication, but they also serve to further distance a large portion of the non-Arabic speaking audience. The metaphor of the wolf, which links Jamie's Holocaust victim grandfather to the boy, her ex-lover Ibrahim, and to her own inner gnawing experience, is tantalizing but not sufficiently developed. Finally, the few moments where the characters actually engage in some passionate exchanges - Jamie at her mother's deathbed or Jamie and Ibrahim arguing over their lost love - where they show us, rather than tell us, what they are feeling are all too brief and disappointingly tepid in Kareem Fahney's rather static direction. The transitions between memory and reality are so fluid as to become abstruse, relying on small indicators of props, costume changes, and lighting.
The physical production, however, does contribute a great deal to the atmosphere of the work and the abiding sense of loneliness and otherness. Anna Grywalski's costumes effectively shape the two cultural worlds. Anita Stewart's rolling sand beach dotted only with a pile of maritime debris and backed with projections of the ocean and night skies makes a powerful statement, and the change in locales is handled with the economy of a few rolling pieces of furniture and flown in décor. Scott Bolman's lighting captures the contrasts of sun-drenched beach and cool, starry nights, while sound designer and composer Mark Van Hare creates an aural palette that transports the viewer.
The cast does its best with the material. Brooke Parks, for the most part, conveys Jamie's aversion to commitment, her suppression of inner demons, and the objectivity she wears as armor. Yet, one would wish for more chemistry between her and Amro Salama's Ibrahim to explain their past relationship and a more gradual sense of her unraveling her emotions as the play progresses. Salama conveys the gentle poetry of his character, though he, too, sometimes lacks intensity. Shauna Bloom is convincing in her brief appearance as Jamie's harsh mother and touching as Ibrahim's mute mother. Anwer Ali, the Waleed at the performance reviewed, grew in stage presence as the performance progressed.
Once again, Portland Stage demonstrates its commitment to nurturing new work and tackling thorny issues. Perhaps that dedication can be reapplied to this script to help it find more coherence for future productions.
Photos courtesy Portland Stage, photographer Aaron Flacke
Refuge Maljaruns from October 30 - November 18 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland, ME 207-