It seems highly unlikely that when William Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, "If music be the food of love, play on," he had Betty Shamieh in mind. Whether or not Shamieh had Twelfth Night in mind while writing Roar, it seems clear that both authors are working on much the same wavelength.
For most of the characters in her play, which just opened at the Clurman Theatre, music can be water for the thirsty, unconditional love for the forsaken, or a dagger straight into a still-beating heart. It has the power to simultaneously be savior and tormenter; regardless of how it's perceived, the notes must be heard, felt, and danced - there is no escape.
And though music is how Shamieh sets up her story about the economic, emotional, and political struggles of a Palestinian family in 1991 Detroit, it soon becomes evident she has far grander ideas in mind. Roar is not at all the lightweight issue-oriented play it first appears, but rather a layered, family-oriented tragic drama in the tradition of The Glass Menagerie or Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Roar may lack some of those works' exhausting dramatic power, but its scope is not perceptibly smaller. While not an overtly political play, the politics of the first Gulf War nonetheless provide an important background for the couple, Karema and Ahmed (Sarita Choudhury and Joseph Kamal), who fled their homeland to America two decades ago, and are now finding their daughter Irene (Sherri Eldin) as attracted to music as her father once was. When Karema's sister, Hala (Annabella Sciorra), a refugee from Kuwait and once a professional musician, arrives, it seems as though Irene might finally receive the guidance and discipline she needs.
But she - and the other family members - receive guidance of a very different sort. Irene begins to understand and respect the Arabian language and music she had once turned her back on, while her parents realize the consequences of their less-than-perfect union could spell ruin for the family now. A simple scratch from the desperate Hala is all that's needed to cause everyone's pain to gush forth from just beneath their skin.
Shamieh brings to Roar the same talent for fashioning characters she demonstrated in her previous work, Chocolate in Heat. That was a series of five monologues only slightly connected by threads of story, but here she's weaving a full tapestry: everyone has a deep personal history, and their relationships with each other grow and evolve as the play's story does. When Hala's ex-husband Abe (Daniel Oreskes), arrives for the first time in the play's final scene, Shamieh has already developed him so well that she needs to waste no more time on exposition; Roar is that strongly constructed.
It's been given a good production as well, under the direction of Marion McClinton, who wipes away the memories of his recent Drowning Crow with his simple but elegant work here. He is so able to cultivate the play's tension that it often seems as if his work and Shamieh's are one and the same. Beowulf Boritt's set is oppressively seedy, yet strangely hopeful, qualities also exhibited in Mattie Ullrich's costumes and Jason Lyons's lights.
Of the performers, only Eldin seems out of place; she has difficulty conveying Irene's resentment of her heritage and the betrayal she feels from her other family members. The other performers are superb: Oreskes brings great depth of character to his one scene; Sciorra's a tortured yet sensuous knockout; and Kamal effectively summons up both Ahmed's love for his family and anger at the life he left behind.
As for Choudhury, her performance is one of great color and intensity; her Karema is a complex creation, a woman with a solid work ethic who is determined to save her family regardless of what she must personally sacrifice. Choudhury beautifully captures Karema's determination, sorrow, and joy in a performance of heartbreaking purity, one of the best of the year.
Shamieh's writing that helped make that possible, of course, and while her achievement with Roar is considerable, the play's not perfect. It could use a little tightening and polishing, particularly in the first act, when Shamieh seems to work too hard to set up plot points that don't allow the action to move as fluidly as it otherwise might.
Still, the play's final effect suggests that Shamieh's knack for character and talent for subtly setting up and executing dramatic conflicts are about to really pay off in her work. If she's not quite ready to stake her claim as not only one of the best and most important playwrights of her generation but as a dramatist as significant in her way as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill were in theirs, Roar certainly suggests the day that will happen is not far off.
The New Group