I was in the third grade when the students-agents of the Iranian Revolution kidnapped 52 American citizens and held them as political prisoners for 442 days. The kidnapping was in retaliation for the United States allowing the ailing former leader of Iran, the Shah to enter the country for medical care. I remember wild-eyed Iranians marching across the TV screen burning American flags, screaming "death to Carter" in farsi. And I remember Carter's midnight-hour negotiations to free them and watching Reagan's inauguration in the school auditorium and the hostages walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. It was my introduction to a world far beyond anything I know, and like a lot of people who grew up in the '70s and '80s it's one of those indelible moments, a jolt to my young mind.
But I wasn't "there" I was a kid in Idaho Falls. I don't think I ever saw the hostages as anything more than a symbol of something bad. Not people who endured over a year of captivity. So watching Salt Lake Acting Company's production The Persian Quarter was an amazing experience and accomplished what only great theater can: It added dimensions and context to what was previously a one-dimensional idea in my mind.
The Persian Quarter introduces us to two diplomats Ann (Nell Gwynn) and Mike (Josh Thoemke) stationed in Iran, living in the American Compound, just as the mullah's are coming to power and the Iranian Revolution is gaining strength.
Soon enough the water in Tehran boils over and the action becomes focused on Ann who is in the last days of her captivity as one of the hostages and in a grand debate with one of her captors--a zealous supporter of the revolution, Shirin (played by Deena Marie Manzanares).
The play closes with a flash forward. Gwynn takes on the roll of the Anne's daughter, while Manzanares moves into the form of Shirin's daughter, in exile in America after her blog of the 2009 Green Movement put her life in danger. In this second act we learn what became of their parents and how the optimism and zeal of the Iranian Revolution were replaced with oppression, bitterness and cynicism.
But the real red meat of this play is the taut dialouge between the captive Anna and the captor Shirin as they battle over each other's "truths." Both Gwynn and Manzanares leave it all on the stage with perfectly paired performances. It's an emotional play, funny and sad and thrilling to watch. And its educational. It adds much needed context to the conversation about U.S.-Iranian relations. It humanizes the kidnappers, spotlights the suffering of the hostages, points the correct fingers at early (Pre-Shah) decisions by the U.S. Intelligence community and stews audiences in the richness of Persian culture.
Playwright Kathleen Cahill, weaves humor, anger, madness and the poetry of Rumi, the famous Iranian bard, alongside the English writings of D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickenson. It's quite a feat and it works. The addition of the mystical works of Runi (portrayed by Shane Mosaffari) and the works of the other authors cuts through the time and points more toward our similarities than our differences.
The Persian Quarter is one of SLAC's finest ever productions. Don't miss it. It runs through Feb. 27 (168 W. 500 North, SLC, 801-363-7522).