Wish You Were Here by Sanaz Toossi
At Yale Rep
By: Karen Isaacs - Oct 25, 2023
“Having a wonderful time, wish you were here” is the cliché for postcards from friends on vacations.
The expression takes on new meaning in Wish You Were Here by Sanaz Toossi at Yale Rep through Saturday, Oct. 28.
It isn’t about vacations but about friendships and the connections that can be lost as time and circumstances intrude.
The play is set in Iran, covering about 15 years in the lives of five women. It is 1978, as the protests that led to the overthrow of the Shah and the institution of the Islamic Republic of Iran were beginning. It takes through to 1991. (Under the Shah, Iran had been moving toward a more western culture with traditional Islamic clothing for women discouraged and increasing educational and professional opportunities for women.)
A group of young women are helping a friend on her wedding day. These are Westernized young women whose jokes are scatological and sexually explicit. Two are preparing for college – one wants to become a physician, the other an engineer. Only the bride (Salme) seems to observe the religious rituals.
But we know what happened: in 1979, Khomeini took over enforcing Islamic laws that limited the activities of women. The US embassy is overrun, and hostages are taken. Later, there was a seven-year war with Iraq.
The lives of this group are disrupted. In a series of scenes, each occurring in a different year, we trace the impact of this revolution. Shideh, who wants to be a physician, gets accepted into a US medical school and departs. She only comes back for the weddings of two others in the group. Nazanin has given up her dream of being an engineer. The revolution prohibited women from studying or working in many fields. Rana, Nazanin’s close friend, has disappeared, as has her Jewish family.
As we go from year to year, the group gets smaller: Shideh goes to medical school in Indiana. Rana remains missing, though Salme keeps searching for her. Salme becomes a more and more devout Muslim, which leads to her death. Zari, the least serious of them all, marries and remains in Iran, as does Nazanin, who feels trapped. At the very end, we meet “New Friend,” a woman who did manage to become an engineer.
Nazanin becomes more and more isolated; you feel her longing for the others, though she seldom directly expresses it. Her lack of concern for Rana and her uninterest in finding her seem cold-hearted. Afterward, I wondered if she knew something about the disappearance.
The play is said to take place in living rooms in Karaj; though the set Omid Akbari does not make it seem like different places. It seemed as though it all took place in the initial room where Salme was preparing for her wedding.
Each of the characters seems to have one major characteristic, which makes it difficult to view them as unique individuals. Shideh acts like the mother or older sister, slightly displeased with the antics of the others. Rana, in the two short scenes she is in, is known for her ability to do hair. Zari is the most immature of the group initially. Salme is sweet and caring but also religious. New Friend seems middle-aged and quiet. Even Nazanin is reduced to one or two traits.
Little discussion occurs about the changes in Iranian society. The remaining women hide and talk of the shelling during the Iraq War. The information that the colleges have reopened. A mention or two of the need to wear the hijab when in public. We only see the women in more Western dress.
Yale has made a point of casting Iranian women in the roles. Bahar Beihaghi projects a quiet certainty to Salme. You get the feeling that her wedding, which begins the play, was arranged.
Anita Ablinezhad plays the central character, Nazanin. It is a challenging role because we have many questions about the character. In the script, she is characterized as the “mean girl” but you also sense depression and resignation. Abdinezad cannot quite make her either sympathetic or clear. Ava Lalezarzadeh is the flighty Zara. She imbues the role with growing maturity.
Director Sivan Battat, a New Haven native, makes use of the lighting design by David Anthony-Ken Decarolis to good advantage. Could she have helped the actors to probe deeper into their characters? Perhaps not.
I will admit that the similarity in looks and the accents at times were confusing.
I left the theater disappointed. So much more could have been portrayed and said. After all, the lives of these women were not just disrupted, but the societal norms changed quickly and radically. These norms still exist today in Iran. In the last year, widespread protests have attacked the “morality police” and the strict rules for women.
For tickets, visit YaleRep.org.
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