By Carole di Tosti . . .
The power of The Vagrant Trilogy, Mona Mansour’s incredible work, currently at the Public Theater until May 15, lies in the questions it raises. These concern the very real circumstances presented, especially in Act III. Mona Mansour’s connected one-act plays (that took the Public one decade to effect), ask us to empathize with the plight of the Palestinian characters Abir (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) and Adham (Hadi Tabbal). We watch as their world shatters and they have to decide whether to remain in London or go back home to live in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Before the play begins, the actors introduce the structure and events, explaining that Act I is the set up to a decision whose consequences offer two alternate realities. The two different outcomes that occur in Act II and Act III reveal a life of free choice versus a life where one’s every movement is controlled, monitored and limited, as the characters live in squalid conditions, and their upward mobility is practically zero.
Mansour asks us to consider the extreme consequences of a single decision to change one’s status from culturally displaced immigrant who gives up everything to live in relative comfort, to that of a refugee who retains cultural identity and family but gives up his comfort and future. The director (Mark Wing-Davey) and the playwright with prodigious effort intend that we empathize with such decisions that the globally displaced are forced to make. These will only increase as wars and extreme events, like climate change-related drought and famine, destabilize nation-states. These will uproot humanity, and people will be forced to migrate to places of relative safety, if they can find such places.
Invariably, as we identify with Abir and Adham and walk in their shoes, we ask which sacrifices we would make if we were in their positions: to choose between Scylla and Charybdis (Greek mythological monsters Odysseus faced on his journey home)? Which monstrous choice would help us retain the most valuable part of ourselves? Or does the act of choosing wipe out identity, regardless of outcome, as the decision-makers consign themselves to a life of regretful “what ifs,” every time they confront the dire obstacles which are bound to occur?
In Act I Adham and Abir meet in their small village in Jordan (former Palestine), after Adham graduates from college and before he goes off to a prestigious speaking event in London for which he has been selected from among many talented candidates. Swept up in their attraction for one another, Adham takes Abir home to meet his forceful, prescient, ambitious mother (Nadine Malouf), who disapproves of Abir as a wife. They elope, and travel to London where Adham garners success at the lecture and is accepted by the faculty (Osh Ashruf, Rudy Roushdi), who he schmoozes with at a party which includes exuberant, friendly, faculty wife Diana, (Nadine Malouf’s versatility is smashing). However, their cultural dislocations are many. Abir feels uncomfortable, a fish out of water, as does Adham, but less so as he speaks English, albeit with an accent.
During the evening of his success at the party, the 1967 Arab-Israeli six-day war breaks out. The faculty suggests they stay in London. They will get the couple visas and work out an internship or something else. Abir is distraught about leaving her family and accuses Adham of heartlessly leaving his mother. The argument intensifies, and by the end of it their emotional fury explodes. The fact is brought out that if they leave they may never be allowed to return to London as Palestinians, who are now in a state of flux with Israel, the Arab world and the US. They must make their momentous decision and never look back
In Act II Adham’s life unfolds as a professor applying for full tenure. He is still friends with Abir whom he has divorced. As this section unfolds, we understand Abir’s extreme regrets, blaming Adham for not leaving. For his part, Adham’s teaching career is problematic and in limbo without a full professorship. He is neither here nor there culturally; he is like the vagrant he refers to in a Wordsworth poem he has studied and teaches. Though he has made friends at the university, he finds increasing difficulty with students and faculty as a Palestinian. Act II resolves as he visits the Lake District, the setting of Wordsworth’s wanderings. It is a respite that works in tandem with his discovery that his brother has died in the refugee camp, a casualty of the further escalation of the “eye-for-eye,” “tooth-for-tooth” machinations that occur in the Middle East.
Act I and II sets are evocative, with music from the period, projections and more, thanks to the following creatives: Allen Moyer (scenic design), Dina El-Aziz (costume design), Reza Behjat (lighting design), Tye Hunt Fitzgerald, Sinan Refik Zafar (co-sound design), Greg Emetaz (video design). However, Act III takes place in the refugee camp in the alternate reality that Adham and Abir would have faced had they returned home.
The Act III set design, sound, lighting are wonderful as they reveal the difficulties and conditions in the camp (power outages, etc.). The two rooms where they live are more tent than shack. There, Adham, Abir, their children Jamila (Nandine Malouf is just incredible as the teen daughter) and Jul (the fine Rudy Roushdi) eat, argue, sleep and manage to survive. The cramped, impoverished, though decorative quarters (rugs and scarves adorn the walls), also hold space for Abir’s brother Ghassan (Ramsey Faragallah) and Adham’s brother Hamzi (Osh Ashruf in a vibrant, enthusiastic portrayal).
It is in Act III where we experience the full impact of their decision to go back “home,” which is nowhere—a refugee camp where they wait and wait for a resolution to the Middle East conflict. It never comes. It is heart-rending, and the actors are magnificent in their portrayals which bring Mansour’s themes to their striking and tragic end. What are we doing globally about this? Why? The misery is incalculable. And Ukrainian refugees in Europe, Syrian refugees, and those from South America must be helped. But how? But when? Can the refugee crises ever be stopped?
This incredible production must be seen. The three hours speed by, but it is not for the faint of heart. While I sat riveted, the couple next to me walked out after Act I, while I couldn’t budge from my seat.
The Vagrant Trilogy. Through May 15 at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette, at Astor Place). www.publictheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus