By Daniel Jackovino
UNION, N.J. — “Yasmina’s Necklace,” the current Premiere Stages production at Kean University, begins as a situation comedy about an arranged marriage but develops into a nightmare.
Written by Rohina Malik and directed by Kareen Fahmy, the story is set in Chicago, sometime following the 2003 war between America and Iraq. The prospective groom, played by Cesar Rosado, is the American-born Abdul, who has changed his name to Sam in order to receive responses from job applications and get his foot into the door of corporate America. The name change has apparently succeeded because he is employed as a financial advisor.
The play begins with the response of Sam’s parents to this name change, and it is pure shtick. His father, Ali, is played with silliness, pride and faux heart attacks by Eliud Kauffman. Sara, his feisty Puerto Rican mother who has converted to Islam, is portrayed by Socorro Santiago. While the parents’ behavior is comical, Sam conveys to the audience that something in the situation is not funny.
Bride-to-be Yasmina, played by Layan Elwazanian, is an Iraqi-born refugee who wears a stone around her neck, a symbol of her native land but also a burden of mind. She works as a cashier in a convenience store and paints therapeutic pictures based her wartime experiences, one being that she found her mother dead in the road. She lives with her father, Musa, played by Haythem Noor, a dentist in Baghdad who is unemployed in Chicago.
Both Yasmina and Sam are strong-headed when we first meet them and only harden a little more, eyeing each other and the prospect of an arranged marriage. Oddly enough, because there is no clear revolt against the wishes of their parents, the audience may wonder if both Sam and Yasmina believe that marriage, despite their protestations, is the best thing for them.
When Sam learns Yasmina is attempting to organize a group to assist Iraqi refugees, he lightens up and tell her he admires her. But the respect is not mutual, with Yasmina telling him that she could spit in his face for taking a false name. Sam is ready to call it quits, but when Yasmina later apologies, he easily forgives her. Not only does he find her attractive, he accepts the rage inside her.
But there is falseness on Yasmina’s part as well, which she keeps under wraps as her relationship with Sam grows. Only the audience sees her conflicts: leaving Amir, the doctor she loves who she met at a hospital in Iraq, and her subsequent arrest and imprisonment in Syria for assisting at the hospital.
The walls of the set, by David Barber, are made of transparent gauze and reinforce the power of memories and how easily they trespass into the present.
Because of her flashbacks, one wonders if Yasmina is hiding a terrible truth that is not the subject of her therapeutic paintings. This notion is confirmed in a brilliant piece of stage direction when the couple talks about love and marriage with their hopeful parents in the next room. They discuss the possibility of a life together while sitting on the dining room table in an arrangement so unnatural as to seem spontaneous. But it calls attention to itself and makes the audience wonder when the relationship will become unsalvageable, and what will happen to this likeable couple.
Both Elwazani and Rosado are wonderful in their roles. Following their characters’ unconsummated wedding night, their face-to-face confrontation over what it means to live in the present is worth everything. Also in the cast is Peter Romano, as Amir, and Robert Manning Jr., as Iman Kareem.
The play runs until Sunday, Sept. 22. For tickets and information, call 908-737-4077 or visit http://www.premierestagesatkean.com.