Chicago Theatre Review
The Face of a Brave Journalist
Unseen – Gift Theatre
When a young American photographer accepts a position to photograph the political unrest and tragedy rampant throughout the Middle East, she finds herself assigned to the killing fields of Istanbul, Turkey. Before heading to this tumultuous area of the world, just prior to the attempted coup in 2016, Mia receives some sound, heartfelt guidance from her editor. She’s advised by her seasoned employer to somehow learn to unsee what she observes through the viewfinder of her Nikon. She’s warned that she’ll encounter certain sights and sounds that will flood her eyes and ears and corrupt her soul. Mia, her editor warns, will become haunted by the images captured before the lens of her camera. It’s not an easy existence.
American playwright, Mona Mansour, a young writer of Middle Eastern descent, has written several plays, most of which are set in and around her family’s homeland. Steppenwolf Theatre produced Mansour’s “The Way West” three years ago, and her “Hour of Feeling” was seen at the 2012 Human Festival. Although there was a reading of Mansour’s latest play at the New York Stage and Film, The Gift has the honor of premiering it now in a full production.
Deftly directed by ensemble member Maureen Payne-Hahner, the always exciting Brittany Burch (“Good For Otto,” “Society of Antarctica”) leads this three-hander as Mia. She plays the photographer with a deeply hidden sensitivity that belies her tough girl persona. We come understand this skilled camera artist as someone who fears being alone, who has a soft spot for sharp kids and who’s mastered her editor’s lesson about the necessity to unsee what she’s seen. Sometimes Mia overly relies on chemical dependency to aid in escaping the horrors captured by her camera lens. Therein lies the girl’s downfall.
Ashley Agbay is astonishing as Derya, the Turkish-American young woman who becomes Mia’s friend, soulmate and savior. The two women share a special relationship that is, as Tennessee Williams called it, “something unspoken.” As such, Derya provides Mia with some much needed support and strength. She’s also not afraid to confront her girlfriend when Mia’s in need of scolding or to show the young American her demons and weaknesses. And, in the play’s finest scene, Ms. Agbay also sensitively plays a young Turkish mother who’s lost her little boy in the bombing of a computer center. It’s the very heart of this tense, intriguing play.
Alexandra Main portrays Jane, Mia’s openminded mother. Shortly after Mia’s found unconscious at the site of a mass disaster, Jane surprises her daughter by visiting her in Istanbul. There she finally meets Derya, Mia’s current girlfriend. Jane busies herself around the house, cruising the bazaars and marketplaces of Turkey and buying up bargains to take back to her suburban California home. Ms. Main also plays Mia’s tough-edged editor, a woman who’s seen it all but still finds it difficult to forget.
However, there’s a certain disconnect in portions of this production that prevent the audience from becoming too deeply involved with Mia and her story. Partially this can be attributed to the direction, but mostly the fault, if there is any, may be in the writing. There are too many unnecessary costume changes, especially for Mia, and a better flow for this 85-minute one-act would’ve been possible without so many blackouts. Had the scenes flowed easier and more smoothly, from one to the next, the audience would remain entrenched inside the story. As it now plays, the rhythm is choppy and continuity is disrupted.
This is an interesting drama, particularly given how our world turns these days. Mansour’s play provides a face for those brave photojournalists who risk their lives everyday using their cameras to tell dangerous, true stories set in exotic locales. It’s impossible for any informed, educated theatergoer to experience this play without recalling the headlines of the day. There is, within this play, something sadly unseen.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 10-April 9 by The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-283-7071 or by going to www.thegifttheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.