Against the Hillside – Stunning Theater

Every now and then I see a production where everything hums. Sylvia Khoury’s riveting, highly topical play is given an accomplished debut at Ensemble Studio Theatre. Dramatic urgency propels a story of morality, humanity, and family in heady environs of war that are less geographic and more insidious than you imagine.

Reem (Mahira Kakkar), her husband Sayid (Babak Tafti), and their little boy Abdul live in an area of Pakistan monitored by drones (controlled from Nevada) and periodically bombed by American Forces. Sayid runs a store belonging to and benefiting extended family that includes Uncle Farid (Rajesh Bose) and cousin Ahmed (Mohit Gautam). They exist in anxiety and fear.

Shane Rettig’s Original Music and Sound Design in collaboration with Barbara Samuel’s Lighting put us at the nucleus of wrenching feelings and incendiary events.

Jack Mikesell and Caroline Hewitt; Jack Mikesell

When Sayid questions why his wife won’t come to bed certain times a month, Reem responds, “I don’t want to have a child under their watch.” When she raises the issue of their son’s agitation, her husband suggests buying a toy. (Watch for a small, nervous, painful laugh Sayid inadvertently emits.) Sayid spends his days inside at business while Reem is exposed; hyper aware of being constantly observed and of implicit danger.

The American side of this immediately absorbing situation centers on Matt Walker (Jack Mikesell), the soldier whose assignment it is to watch the store and Reem’s home. His involvement with and sympathy for this Pakistani woman whom he refers to by first name, increases daily. “I know things about Reem her husband doesn’t know.” Matt’s pregnant wife Erin (Caroline Hewitt) feels him slipping away into obsession and insists that he speak with Commanding Officer (and friend) Jared (John Wernke.)

Babak Tafti and Mahira Kakkar

In Pakistan, a family member’s residence is bombed. Farid and Ahmed enter Sayid’s home carrying a burned, dismembered body. It’s imperative to Sayid that as religion dictates, the corpse be washed, perfumed, and given a funeral. “No! When there are more than five people gathered, they strike!” Reem exclaims viscerally panicked. She’s desperate to move to a city. Sayid refuses.

Matt’s emotional investment made it difficult to execute the strike.  He’s fraying. Newbie lieutenant Anthony (Avery Whitted) who esteems him, begins to acquire debilitating symptoms of unease- offering us a look at before and after.

Avery Whitted and John Wernke

Sylvia Khoury’s play chronicles its multilayered characters with compassion and what seems like complete veracity. People do what they must – until unbearable, but can’t control what they feel. Tradition confronts survival; responsibility and duty are sorely tried. Relationships rupture and are formed. Consequences mushroom. Time passes. Throughout the gripping story, Khoury has the wisdom to pepper moments of unforeseen normalcy – peanut butter and ballet class come to mind – that draw us in to otherwise untenable events. The work is all of a piece – no holes, no shortcuts.

Mohit Gautam and Rajesh Bose

There isn’t a weak link in this terrific cast. I rarely call out everyone, but:

Mahira Kakkar’s deftly layered Reem is a lioness; palpably terrified yet never out of control, always evidencing deep love for her intractable husband. Babak Tafti (Sayid) comes into his own when the character finds an unusual way to cope with staggering change. As embodied by Jack Mikesell, Matt is a good guy and able soldier overwhelmed by the surprise of tortured conscience. Jared (John Wernke) is equally straight-arrow; authoritative yet sympathetic, never taking the easy route to cliché. Both actors are naturalistic and appealing.

Caroline Hewitt plays Erin with understanding and finesse, especially when the new recruit appears at her door. Avery Whitted’s performance quickly morphs from eagerness to blindsided stress. Anthony represents all young men who have no idea what they’re getting into. As Ahmed, Mohit Gautam’s alarm is as physically spot-on as the character’s eventual stoicism. Rajesh Bose plays two roles so distinctively different you may not recognize him in the second. Farid is blanketed by exhaustion and defeat, while Bose’s later portrayal is a one of outstandingly subtlety. Sammy Pignalosa inhabits Moussa, a local student whose innocence and seriousness are unquestionable.

Director William Carden is a virtuoso. Nuance pervades. Judgment is avoided. Actors listen and are watchful. Internal dialogue is sensed. Every touch counts. Fast, abrasive set change and taut scenes keep us engrossed.

The Counterterrorism Handbook: Tactics, Procedures and Techniques by Frank Bolz. Jr., Kenneth J. Dudonis, and David P. Schultz states that when a captor has life and death control over a victim… “Survival Identification” can occur. Our “new” long distance wars manifest this kind of transference as frequently as The Stockholm Syndrome, associated with face to face incidents, was previously identified.

Photos by Gerry Goodstein
Opening: Mahira Kakkar and Babak Tafti

Against the Hillside by Sylvia Khoury
Directed by William Carden
Ensemble Studio Theatre
Through February 25, 2018

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About Alix Cohen (1581 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.