World events have conspired to make the world premiere of Kathleen Cahill’s The Persian Quarter feel urgent and timely. But it didn’t take a Middle Eastern revolution to make this production revelatory.
Cahill interweaves multiple timelines into the narrative, with the first act largely devoted to the interaction in January 1981 Tehran between American teacher Ann (Nell Gwynn, pictured above left), an American hostage, and one of her captors, Shirin (played by Deena Marie Manzanares, a City Weekly contributor, pictured above right). Nearly 30 years later, Ann’s daughter Emily (also played by Gwynn) and Shirin’s daughter Azadeh (also Manzanares) meet at Columbia University, with no awareness of the history between them.
The story also flashes briefly to the plotting of an American agent (Josh Thoemke) to overthrow the Iranian government and install the Shah in the 1950s, while also integrating the Sufi mystic poet Rumi (Shane Mozaffari) into the action. The result is a terrific exploration of the way two nations perceive the same chain of events, as well as the almost willful ignorance Americans tend to bring to any encounter with other-ness.
That notion gets its human face—two human faces, really—in Nell Gwynn’s remarkable pair of performances. While director Andra Harbold’s direction allows us to see Gwynn changing from Ann into Emily, Gwynn inhabits both women as two completely different manifestations of the same narrow-mindedness—one a true-believer patriot, the other a politically disinterested photographer for US Weekly. She’s the most impressive part of a theatrical work that will still speak to how we define “freedom” in coming years, no matter the headlines of the moment.