Theater Review: “Paradise” — A Fascinating Culture Clash

Paradise‘s central conflict and the performances in the Underground Railway Theater production are damn good.

Paradise, written by Laura Maria Censabella. Directed by Shana Gozansky. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Lighting design by Karen Perlow; Costume design by Gail Buckley; Sound design by Nathan Leigh. Staged by the Underground Railway Theater and Catalyst Collaborative@MIT at the Central Square Theater, Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA, through May 7.

Caitlin Nasema Cassidy & Barlow Adamson in the Underground Railway production of "Paradise." Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.

Caitlin Nasema Cassidy & Barlow Adamson in the Underground Railway production of “Paradise.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.

By David Greenham

As we approach the end of the school year, millions of young people are preparing to graduate from high school into a world that might be more uncertain than the world that any of us have ever known. In her program notes for Underground Railway Theater’s impressive production of Paradise, playwright Laura Maria Censabella writes “I thought Americans would have a nuanced understanding of the Muslim faith by the time Paradise was produced because it is absolutely vital that we do.” We don’t.

The play’s ‘paradise’ is the high school science room of reluctant teacher Dr. Guy Royston (Barlow Adamson). He’s been exiles from the respected neuroscience faculty at Columbia University for indulging in two universal human traits: jealousy and revenge. Eventually we learn that his failure involved more than a little stupidity. He’s now got a teaching gig in a scientist-in-the-school program in an underachieving Bronx high school. Resigned to his fate, he’s going through the motions, but then overachieving student Yasmeen Al-Hamadi (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) storms in. She’s found her paradise, she announces to Royston, and it’s his class. “You make science seem like philosophy, history, and poetry,” the enthused pupil tells him. “What’s your name?” he responds. Its that chasm that Censabella’s smart play aims to cross.

Driven and determined, Al-Hamadi had received straight A’s until she failed a quiz in Dr. Royston’s class. She is there to demand an opportunity to redeem herself so she can keep her A. “We all like to keep our perfect scores,” Royston quips; he’d long ago lost his shot at maintaining his. So why help this 17-year-old Muslim immigrant from Yemen? Because it’s impossible not to. “I’m a very surprising person,” she says matter-of-factly. It is one of the play’s most joyous moments.

American audiences empathize with Royston in this scenario. Like him, we mostly fumble and bumble our way around people from somewhere else. Dramatist Censabella has great fun running us through the back streets and alleyways of a culture that is different from ours. At the same time, she takes advantage of each opportunity to undercut our sense of superiority. As a dramatic foil for the emotionally damaged but ego-driven Dr. Royston, Yasmeen Al-Hamadi is perfect. She’s young and idealistic, but also deeply devoted to her culture and religion. Royston, the agnostic purveyor of pure science, takes a direct hit in his least vulnerable spot — his soul.

Together, they come up with an adventurous hypothesis about how the experience of first love registers in the brains of adolescents. For Royston, this opportunity for a teacher/student collaboration may be just the kind of research that, with assistance of one of the few former colleagues who will speak with him, could assist an escape from his high school purgatory. At the same time, his Muslim student may be able to overcome the stereotypical wife/mother role he assumes she will be forced to fulfill against her will. But Royston forgets one of the primal rules of science – you can’t prove a hypothesis with flawed research. Royston’s elemental problem is blindness: his reputation as a scientist is completely ruined, and family and faith contain depths he can’t fathom.

While not ideal for this intimate two-hander, the three-sided thrust stage of Central Square Theater has been effectively transformed (by Jenna McFarland Lord) into a dated high school science classroom. Karen Perlow’s lights are spot-on, and thankfully steer away from the florescent glare that would probably be the more accurate choice. Gail Buckley provides a varied costume design that’s clever and successful. Of most interest is the sometimes thumping sound design by Nathan Leigh. It makes considerable impact; it not only exacerbates the tensions of the play, but most likely challenges audience expectations of what Middle Eastern music is.

Director Shana Gozansky works very hard to use the space in a way that focuses on the intense intimacy of the tale. Occasionally it felt as if we were looking at two people in a cavernous room – with audience members on three sides. I often wished some of us in the audience could have sat right there in the classroom watching: that’s because the play’s central conflict, and the production’s acting, was so damn good.

As Dr. Royston, Adamson has the ‘peeling an onion’ role. Little by little, as each layer falls away, we learn the details of his past and even a bit about his present. What we don’t see quite enough of, dramatically, is how the power in the relationship is slowly being transferred to his student. We can tell that it’s going on; and its completion makes for a heartbreakingly lovely conclusion. Adams is spot-on conveying Royston’s detachment from humanity and his hunger for success; when the character is touched by something other than his futile need for redemption, it is mesmerizing.

Paradise is about two hours long, including an intermission. The luminous energy of Cassidy’s Yasmeen al-Hamadi makes you wish the production was twice as long. The actor does justice to a marvelously charismatic character: simultaneously tenacious, loyal, grounded, and soaring. Cassidy makes it all involving — the rough seas of Yasmeen’s childhood, her desire for education, her complicated relationship with her relatives. Through it all, the student’s inner peace comes from Allah and the Quran. There’s a moment where she sings the definition of paradise in Arabic that stops the play dead in its tracks, leaving audience members pondering a vision of peace. At the end, Yasmeen surprises Dr. Royston and many in the audience, I suppose, when she confesses that she wants “to be part of the fabric of my family.” Somehow, it seems, individuality and vaulting ambition isn’t enough. Is anyone surprised?

Censabella understands the increasingly crucial need for Americans to have a nuanced perception of the Muslim faith. Frankly, based on the current ignominious political situation, it’s not all that clear that we have a strong grasp of American democracy. Ignorance is not bliss. If we are ever to reach paradise, the Yasmeens of the world have their work cut out for them.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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