No matter how atrocious or horrifying an event, words can never fully capture what a picture can. With this in mind, Glyn O’Malley’s Paradise succeeds more as a portrait of hatred, misunderstanding, and hope than it does as a work of genuine literature. Through his youthful and dedicated cast, O’Malley delivers some shocking and poignant moments, but without these intense performances, it is difficult to imagine this script as only stark words on a page.
This 90 minute drama successfully captures the complete arc of two simultaneous and eerily intertwining stories played out in the shrapnel-scattered Middle East in 2002. One is that of a Palestinian girl, Fatima (Sanaz Alexander), struggling to survive and nurture her literary gifts within the confines of the Dehaishe Refugee Camp while becoming entangled in a fight for freedom and land. The other centers on Sarah (Janine Barris), an American-raised Israeli teen brought back to Jerusalem with her schoolteacher mother (Carmen Roman) who finds an outlet for her shyness through the lens of her camera. In another time and place, these two girls would have instantly been friends; here, they are each other’s demise. Inspired by the true occurrence of an 18-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber who killed three people, including herself and an Israeli high school senior, Paradise slyly weaves a story of level sympathy spiked with devastating touches.
The requisite symbolism is there: various news broadcasts are played out over speakers but the actual programs are never seen. This “background noise” floats in and out of the dialogue, commenting on the latest events of the Infitada and tallying up the lost and missing, but somehow never really encompasses the terror of the streets. For this to hit home, it takes the images that Sarah cements onto film or the unsettling re-enactments of attacks that filter out into and through the audience. This is when playwright/director O’Malley excels, for while the monotone stream of reporters’ voices states the facts, these moments jolt the audience into fearing for and caring about the characters.
Unfortunately there are two sides to this coin, for instances as intense as those cannot continuously bombard the audience without breathes of recovery. Those tamer sections would be lost if not for the driven and anguished performances delivered by the cast. Mostly the words they are saying can be described as unremarkable, but the passion with which this cast hurls them at each other is astonishing. Janine Barris as Sarah is truly extraordinary, giving Sarah an explosive, angsty announcement of adolescence while still retaining the unsure awkwardness of trying to fit in among her newly discovered “people.” Watching Barris verbally spar with Carmen Roman (as her fervent Jewish mother, Shoshana) is akin to watching a lightning-fast tennis match, but their moments of quiet awe in each other are equally touching to see.
Sanaz Alexander is less fiery to watch as Fatima, but this unguarded sweetness works in Alexander’s favor when understanding her fatal choices. Arian Moayed brings his boyish charms to the part of Omar, Fatima’s cousin currently attending college in America, but his importance peters out towards the play’s conclusion. Vaneik Echeverria is powerfully commanding as Bassam, the man responsible for suggesting Fatima’s ultimate actions.
Though we are given glimpses of Sarah’s photographs (an exhibition on Israel fittingly entitled “Paradise”), their display at the show’s end is rather anticlimactic. The human tableau seen only seconds before in the previous scene (I’ll refrain from describing it so as not to ruin its gut-wrenching impact) trumps anything that might follow it. It is understandable why O’Malley includes the “epilogue” with Shoshana and Omar, but its effect is considerably less than what was previously achieved and therefore leaves the audience with a dragging, unfinished aftertaste.
It’s odd to compliment a show more for how it seems than what it actually is, but somehow that compliment is fitting for Paradise. Just as a news article can’t encapsulate what it’s reporting on, Paradise can’t fully re-create the terrifying events and consequences of the Infitada — but it can certainly send a shiver down your spine.
Gary Allen Productions