Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Caroline Hewitt

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

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about covering theater on WAT-CAST.

Arena Stage’s City of Conversation – Family and Politics Collide


When Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith saw Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation at Lincoln Center, she was eager to have it produced in the nation’s capital. And why not? Washington is the city where these conversations once occurred in the homes of D.C.’s hostesses (think Susan Alsop and Kay Graham) who played a pivotal role in bringing together opposing sides at elegant parties. Back then, after-dinner arguments may have become heated, but the rivals continued to break bread together, even stayed friends. When the play premiered in New York, in June, 2014, Donald Trump’s candidacy was a year away. In the current campaign climate, one can’t imagine Trump, or any of his opponents, remaining civil while sharing a meal. This old social order did exist at one time, however, and our country was the better for it.


Michael Simpson and Margaret Colin

The play opens in the fall of 1979 and is set in the Georgetown townhouse of liberal-leaning Hester Ferris (Margaret Colin). This evening Hester’s guests are Kentucky Senator George Mallonnee (Todd Scofield), and his wife, Carolyn (Jjana Valentiner). On Hester’s agenda are two items: the passage of a Ted Kennedy sponsored bill that would help the Massachusetts senator’s presidential bid, and the career advancement of her live-in lover, Chandler Harris (Tom Wiggin).


Ann McDonough

Hester’s widowed sister, Jean Swift (Ann McDonough, in an excellent performance) supports her sibling’s causes and helps plan the get togethers, while never attending herself. Throughout the play, Jean serves as a reality check for Hester, often delivering advice and warnings in droll one-liners that never fail to produce laughs.

Hester’s son, Colin (Michael Simpson), arrives home from abroad earlier than expected. Hester is thrilled, not only to see him, but also with the prospect of presenting a united familial front to woo the reluctant senator over to her side. Her plans are dashed, however, when she witnesses her son’s turn to the dark side, egged on by his girlfriend, Anna Fitzgerald (Caroline Hewitt). The two have just graduated from the London School of Economics, and Colin has returned a changed man, rejecting liberal opinions once embraced. Anna dispenses with any social niceties and plunges right in, criticizing everything Hester stands for and Colin once believed in. For her part, Hester looks with distain at Anna’s disheveled appearance and offers to lend her a black cocktail dress for the evening’s festivities. Anna accepts the dress, but not the idea that she should tone down her behavior. Joining the men for brandy and cigars and espousing her conservative views, she soon has the senator and his wife eating out of her hand – not what Hester had hoped for. What really stings, though, is Colin’s strident rejection of his mother’s ideals in front of the senator.


Margaret Colin and  Tyler Smallwood

We flash forward for Act Two, finding ourselves smack in the middle of the Reagan years. Hester is now babysitting for her grandson, Ethan (Tyler Smallwood), who playfully bounces a rubber ball around the living room and asks to watch Cinderella on video. (There are jokes about using the VCR – remember those?) Hester’s love for her grandson is genuine and heartfelt. And like with Colin, she can’t resist sharing with Ethan her political views, something her son and Anna constantly complain about. This time around, Hester’s out to defeat Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. She and Jean have fashioned a letter that will run as an advertisement in newspapers where senators are still undecided about how they will vote. When Anna arrives to pick up Ethan, Hester scrambles to hide the letter, anticipating her daughter-in-law’s reaction. In contrast to the affection that Hester displays with Ethan, Anna remains all business. She’s left her bohemian look behind in favor of a severe dark blue suit in keeping with her position at the Justice Department, and she can’t seem to get out of business mode to cuddle her son.

Colin’s appearance has changed, too. His youthful bushy hair is now slicked back, Gordon Gekko style and he sports a ridiculous looking mustache. While Anna is supporting Bork’s nomination to the court, Colin is the one who has everything to lose if the effort fails. The New Hampshire senator Colin works for has gone all out to back Bork and could lose his seat. If the nomination is defeated and Hester’s role revealed, her son could lose his job. Anna finds the letter, confronts Hester, and delivers an ultimatum. Where do Hester’s emotions lie? With her son or with her politics? We learn the answers in the last scene, when we are transported to 2008, the evening of Barack Obama’s inauguration.


Caroline Hewitt, Margaret Colin, and Michael Simpson

Giardina has written an intelligent play with smart dialogue. The zingers oftentimes fly so fast it’s hard to keep up. This cast is up for the challenge. Brooklyn-born Margaret Colin is terrific as Hester, showing fierceness when defending her point of view, but warmth when watching over Ethan. Caroline Hewitt taps into Anna’s raw ambition. Because we all know someone like Anna as a fellow student, co-worker, or boss, the performance grates. Unlike with Hester, we never see a softer side to Anna, a hint of what Colin might have seen in her when he fell in love and married her. Michael Simpson’s Colin seems energized at the beginning of the play when he and Anna are a team confronting Hester. Yet by the second act, Colin seems defeated, resigned to his fate, having traded one strong-willed woman for another. He seems exhausted and beaten down, and Simpson allows us to see his despair.

Staging the play in the Fichlander, brings the audience into the action. The production team from Lincoln Center – Director Doug Hughes, Set Designer John Lee Beatty, Costumer Designer Catherine Zuber, and Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau – have worked their magic here, too.

While The City of Conversation places politics front and center, the play is really about family. We are expected to teach our children values and share our ideas with them, but at some point those children grow up and develop opinions of their own. One can only imagine the dinnertime conversations going on these days, if not in Georgetown townhouses, at tables around the country as young and old make decisions about the upcoming presidential election.

Photos by C. Stanley Photography:

Opening: Tom Wiggin, Margaret Colin, Caroline Hewitt, Todd Scofield, and Jjana Valentiner

The City of Conversation
Fichlander Theater
Arena Stage
1011 Sixth Street, SW