Seven people straggle into the meeting room at a ramshackle, urban Buddhist Center. Metal chairs and a table are respectively stacked and folded. Rolling chairs, a frayed couch, low table, giant cushions, and a Buddha poster furnish the venue. (Jo Winiarski- design) Much like attending seekers, all show wear. Outside a single window, we hear sirens, jack-hammers, and swearing by constructions workers. Beyond the door, intermittent, loud voices indicate an under-thirty group meeting nextdoor. It’s not the calmest atmosphere.
This group was established seven years ago by Maia (Maddie Corman), a follower of Rinpoche Sunam now gone from it. She’s dedicated and informed. They meet once a week. Maia habitually officiates for lack of another volunteer. She pulls a singing bowl and mallet out of her purse and strikes it. All bow.
The first to “touch in” i.e. share, she tells them she’s just returned from a weekend retreat at Ashanda. Maia beams. She has a cottony voice, measured demeanor, and a spacey quality.
Kerry Bishé (Thea), Jess Gabor (Katie), Carl Hendrick Louis (Mark)
Rosa (Natalie Woolams-Torres) suffers from panic attacks she’s attempting to quell; a hostile mother-in-law, a demanding husband and young child. Her new Fit-Bit is a current aid to balance. “It’s like I’m a thermostat! I’m an up arrow and a down arrow and – !” Rosa is friendly with Fiz (short for “Abdul Hafiz”- Mehran Khaghani) a sweet, repressed gay man trying like hell to connect. The paternal Suzanne (Robyn Peterson) inevitably brings snacks. She appears purposefully grounded, reticent, speaking only in support of order.
Mark (Carl Hendrick Louis) who waits tables, is an unemployed actor dealing with confidence, identity, his primary relationship, and anger management. Having been fired and evicted Katie (Jess Gabor) is living with a cult called The Children of Death. The youngest and least stable, she dresses and makes up Goth, sits alone and vibrates with anxiety. Thea (Kerry Bishe) is the newbe. With no knowledge of Buddhism, she was encouraged to try its precepts by her life partner revealed to be Mark. “Don’t worry, it’s like every Buddhist group – but with a little trauma,” Fiz reassures her. That Thea never received an email with “the rules” is quickly evident.
Maddie Corman (Maia), Mehran Khaghani (Fiz)
Among them, three have been victims of repeated rape – one secret to the group. One experienced parental alcoholism and physical abuse. Two are serious depressives. Thea was traumatized at six when her mother was killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. A brilliant young woman, she’s histrionically obsessed with history, looking for answers about human behavior that might explain the death.
Unfolding episodically, we watch the seven wrangle every day issues battling past demons. Exercises include Tong Len in which they collectively attempt to take in someone else’s suffering and give them compassion, achieved by picturing the person as a child. And imagining oneself as a child, a method used to calm and alleviate blame. The play’s title refers to each writing out a fear, reading them aloud as THE fears, rather then anyone owning his or hers. This destigmatizes and objectifies threats ostensibly leaving them with less power. Or so the teaching goes.
Robyn Peterson (Suzanne), Kerry Bishé (Thea), Maddie Corman (Maia) Jess Gabor (Katie) Natalie Woolams-Torres (Rosa) and Carl Hendrick Louis (Mark)
Participants are triggered like firecrackers; personalities illuminated by reactions and reaching out. That we learn about characters this way is a credit to playwright Emma Sheanshang who wisely doesn’t give us anything on a platter. Despite underlying stress and trauma, she’s written a piece liberally peppered with laughter. We humans are fallible, clumsy creatures even with the best of intentions. One particularly important reveal and a very original red herring will keep you talking after curtain.
Acting is good across the board. Kerry Bishe’s Thea subtly indicates lack of focus and credibly erupts without going overboard. As Suzanne, Robyn Peterson is completely believable ballast. Mehran Khaghani (Fiz), Natalie Woolams-Torres (Rosa) and Carl Hendrick Louis (Mark) might easily be our neighbors. Maddie Corman (Maia) is marvelous as the ersatz tranquil axis.
Director Dan Algrant uses his staging area with skill. Characters are distinctive; rituals well played; emotions resonant.
David Robinson’s costumes fit personalities to a T.
The piece is intriguing and entertaining.
Photos by Daniel Rader
Opening: Mehran Khaghani, Maddie Corman, Robyn Peterson, Carl Hendrick Louis, Natalie Woolams-Torres
The Fears by Emma Sheanshang
Directed by Dan Algrant
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street