There is something utterly absorbing about a well-made, expertly acted two-character play like Zoo Story, The Dresser, or Waiting for Godot (yes, I know, Lucky and Pozzo, but it is in its essence, a two-character play). Add to the canon Laura Maria Censabella’s exquisite Paradise, now in its West Coast premiere at Odyssey Theatre.
In a far from elite, inner-city Bronx high school, a striving Yemeni-American female student, Yasmeen al-Hamadi (bright, enthusiastic Medalion Rahimi), bonds with a disgraced, high-profile scientist, Dr. Guy Royston (Jeff Marlow), who is reduced to teaching at the school because of an egregious indiscretion that has barred him from the upper-echelons of research science. Yasmeen is a brilliant over-achiever whose goal is a college career at nearby Columbia University, but she is starting from behind, and her life is complicated by her Islamic culture, one sign of which is the hijab she wears in religious compliance. Yasmeen is a faithful Muslim and fiercely adheres to the precepts of the Quran.
The unlikely duo bond over a project derived from Yasmeen’s interest in the human brain, especially the brains of teenagers. She has an original thought that intrigues Dr. Royston and together they develop a research project that may have the possibility of publication, which could rescue Royston from oblivion and boost Yasmeen into college.
But of course, there are complications that are especially difficult for a Muslim girl. With her parents dead and an arranged marriage looming, Yasmeen is torn between her scientific ambitions and filial responsibility. The contrasts between the professor and student are fascinating, and the difference in cultures striking. Yasmeen expresses the beauty of Islam and the Quran in a singular moment when she sings a passage from the Holy Book. Royston loosens up enough to dance a bit to the music of Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” Powerful emotions from both characters, each in their own unique way, fuel spellbinding drama that is utterly absorbing and sparked the rare, truly spontaneous, standing ovation at curtain call on the night I attended.
Under the keen, sensitive direction by Vicangelo Bulluck, Paradise is impeccably produced with a first class scenic and lighting design by Jeff Rowlings, a superb sound design by Jon Gottlieb, and a costume design by Mylette Nora that supports character and action. And I loved seeing the fine efficiency of the running crew, Sean Fawaz and Zack Roosa, who quickly and surely, cleared and reset props and set pieces.
In addition to the creative team mentioned above, shoutouts go to casting director Michael Donovan, CSA, scientific advisor Colin Cox, cultural advisor Roxi-Rabab Muthana and associate producer Nawal Bengholam. The production stage manager is Jenine MacDonald and Racquel Lehrman–Theatre Planners is general manager. Paradise is executive-produced by Viola Davis, Julius Tennon and John Cappetta, and presented by JuVee Productions and American Oasis.
Paradise, a visiting production, continues through February 17 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.