‘Elyria,’ by Deepa Purohit, a Gujarati Diaspora in Ohio, Review
The gorgeously vibrant sarees and salwar kameez take center stage as the characters spin and move exotically to traditional garba music. This is a festival celebration by Gujarati diasporans and other Indians who have found their way to Elyria, Ohio by 1982, the setting of the the titular play by Deepa Purohit. Currently in its World Premere at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Off Broadway Linda Gross Theater until March 19th, Elyria is incisively directed by Awoye Timpo and runs with one intermission. .
At its most powerful, Elyria captures the cultural nuances and shifting values gradually shaping the diasporans as they migrate from Kenya to London to Elyria. Through stylization and minimal, almost expressionistic set design, the play’s central tenet, how the past shakes itself into the present, unfolds in the imaginations of the characters, as they visualize their past interactions in flashbacks, which inform and drive their present behaviors.
Elyria never descends completely into a melodrama of a threesome gone awry. This is because of the director’s elusive suggestion of the principals’ younger versions of themselves, portrayed by Mahima Saigal, Avanthika Srinivasan and Sanskar Agarwal, in flashbacks symbolically staged with accompanying music. The wistful compositions by Neel Murgai convey timber and moment. They are especially effective in the first act and in the flashbacks. For it is the nuance and surrealism of the past which lift Elyria beyond the mundane. As a result the evocative scenes present a dream-state atmosphere, like a series of meditations through which we intuit that Dhatta (Gulshan Mia) and Vasanta (Nilanjana Bose) make peace with themselves and each other by the play’s end.
Into the celebration of dance and happy festivities, Vasanta emerges on the dance floor to confront Dhatta and briefly move with her as they share awkward, stilted greetings. We anticipate from their encounter that they have known each other in another time and place, as it turns out when they were growing up together in Kenya. Though the contrast between the two women is not apparent initially, after they have additional encounters, we learn that Dhatta comes from an upper class strata of Gujarati society and Vasanta comes from a family with little means. As the play gradually unfolds, we learn that traditional cultural folkways bleed into the relationships and interactions of the characters, defining their social positions, identities and behaviors.
Without slamming rhetorical intrusions into the love triangle which developed elsewhere and ended after Dhatta married Charu (Bhavesh Patel) the playwright gradually reveals the surreptitious bonds among the characters, using Vasanta as the catalyst. Though she promised she wouldn’t, Vasanta follows Dhatta and Charu all the way to Elyria to confront them about Rohan (Mohit Gautam) who is the child of Vasanta and Charu’s love relationship. Dhatta has told Rohan that she is not his birth mother, but she is his mother forever. Rohan tells his college friend Hassanali (Omar Shafiuzzaman) that he plans to locate his birth parents after he and Hassanali graduate from college. Hassanali, a self-proclaimed computer genius, promises that he will help Rohan locate them on the “Interweb.”
Two ironies immediately present themselves. Rohan and Hassanali will be searching globally on the nascent and clunky forerunner of the internet whose communication protocols were not yet standardized (the internet was born in 1983). Ironically, Rohan’s birth parents are in his backyard and he could know them if someone would just “spill the beans.” However, revealing the secret is a monumental endeavor for the one carrying it, a happening more far flung then landing a spaceship on Neptune.
But even mountains move and an upset Vasanta finds the means financially with her hairdresser skills to make it to Elyria, supporting charming, con man husband Shiv (Sanjit De Silva) to proclaim her truth and see her grown-up child. Thus, the forward momentum of Purohit’s delicate unfolding plot complication unravels and destroys Dhatta’s world.
The secret is not revealed to Rohan during the play. Rohan believes that he was adopted by both Charu and Dhatta. It is his misfortune that he never receives the information that Charu is his real father with his mother’s childhood friend Vasanta as his birth mother. Dhatta is responsible for sharing the information that she promised Vasanta she would share. She doesn’t because she can’t; she is afraid. She knows that Charu loved Vasanta more, but until she begins to reconcile her past younger self with her older self’s experience, she can’t confront her husband about that love or the child it produced. The play is the revelation of the truth about Rohan and how it has impacted the characters and their love of themselves. Until they confront the truth, the guilt and self-loathing they’ve experienced keeping secrets from each other fester inside their souls and psyches.
At the heart of the complications, emotional problems and self-revulsion that each of the characters feel, are Indian cultural folkways. These (arranged marriages, economic status, paternalism) have oppressed both Vasanta and Dhatta and have damned Charu to a life of remote isolation from his son and his wife, as he perfunctorily performs his role as a father and husband. Indeed, Dhatta has devoted all of her love to Rohan and has unconsciously closed out Charu. He accuses her of foiling their marriage and giving all her attention to Rohan in a dynamic scene where Dhatta finally is able to tell him she knows about Vasanta. Admitting that she has raised up his son from a woman he still loves clears the air. On the other hand the truth heaps recriminations on Charu for clearly Dhatta is the better person, despite his accusations that accepting Rohan and raising him as her own son has negatively impacted their marriage.
Eventually, we discover their past and the traditions that bound them and still bind them making Charu culpable in what has happened. Years before Elyria and his marriage to Dhatta, Charu and Vasanta were lovers. However, their future marriage was doomed by her parent’s financial status and inability to pay the high dowry price required. Thus, Charu must marry someone financially well-off, in an economically viable arranged marriage of which his parents and Dhatta’s parents approve. Vasanta keeps secret her pregnancy and when Rohan is born, she delivers her son to Dhatta, keeping the baby with at least one birth parent, that is, if Dhatta agrees to the secrecy, which Vasanta eventually wants to be divulged to everyone.
Of course human beings don’t keep their promises, as we learn from the brief conversations between Bose’s Vasanta and Mia’s Dhatta. Dhatta never tells Charu she knows about his love for Vasanta. In the complication of generously swallowing dishonor and raising her husband’s former lover’s child, the secret lays dormant and calcifies her marriage and relationship with Charu. Interestingly, they aren’t able to have another child. To what extent this is because of the burden of secrets that Dhatta carries is unclear. However, when Vasanta’s stalks Dhatta and Charu to Elyria, she, too, breaks the promise that she would never pursue them or interfere in their marriage. Spending the time and money to hunt them down, then dragging along her unsuspecting, career failed husband Shiv to Elyria, we recognize how high the stakes are for her to reconcile with her son and former lover.
Both women must receive satisfaction; one to remain in darkness, the other to expose Rohan to the light. The result is devastaing and wonderful. The upheaval at the top of the play which sets in motion a dynamic that could have unfolded in a more forceful way is not the intent of Purohit’s subtle, delicate work, which meanders and flows until a final truth emerges on the brink of revelation. Who will be the first to bravely speak it out?
There are many themes in Elyria. One is an indictment of the mores whose strictures create problems for families, binding individual in fear. Charu is a traditional, conservative man who refuses to marry Vasanta though he loves her. He chooses to stay with his parent’s ways, hurting himself and all involved. Adhering to these folkways threatens to derail Rohan’s circumstances in the future because Charu wants Rohan to marry a woman of economic means, matching if not exceeding his own lifestyle as a surgeon. In one scene Charu attempts to steer Rohan toward beginning to get serious about meeting a girl he will marry. However, in his interactions with Hassanali, we discover Rohan is attracted to men. Unless the family is truthful and frees itself from such bondages, more trouble, pain and sorrow will follow them.
Kudos to Elyria‘s creative team which includes Parijat Desai (choreography) Jason Ardizzone-West (sets) Sarita Fellows (costumes) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (lighting) Amatus Karim-Ali (sound) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (projections) Nikiya Mathis (hair design) Neel Murgai (compositions). Praise to the ensemble, who are vibrant and on-point, and the director whose vision brings Purohit’s work to life and endears us to her characters’ movement toward reconciliation.
For tickets go to the Atlantic Theater Company website https://atlantictheater.org/