“Pirira”: Parallel stories, converging

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"Pirira" is presented by Luna Stage in West Orange. Photo by Jody Christopherson
Go and see Pirira at Luna Stage

It is rare to find a play where a familiar structure is given a unique twist which is so imaginatively crafted and so well executed that it soars. J. Stephen Brantley has created such a play in Pirira, which begins Luna Stage’s first season under new Artistic Director Ari Laura Kreith at its home in West Orange. Mr. Brantley succeeds where other playwrights fail, giving us a work of stark beauty.

The structure is simple: two stories, each involving two characters, which take place on the same day and time but thousands of miles apart. The date is July 20, 2011. It is early afternoon in Lilongwe, capital of the African nation of Malawi; it is early morning in New York City. In Lilongwe, two Americans, one the head of an NGO and the other a young female MBA, are taking cover in a storage room while government-sanctioned riots engulf the city. In the stockroom of a florist in NYC, a young Malawian man and his gay co-worker prepare the day’s flowers for sale. The conversations of both pairs of characters explore cultural differences, religious beliefs, and politics at all levels from the national to the personal.

Two seperate scenes take place on stage simultaneously

The unique twist? Instead of breaking the play down into discrete scenes, with one in Malawi followed by one in America and vice versa, the scenes take place on stage simultaneously. All four actors are on stage at all times, and their dialogues weave and flow logically despite space, time, and context. A remark made in one location can invoke a response in the other. A question asked in Malawi may be answered in America. The same words and phrases can be uttered by characters in both cities, sometimes at the same time, and make sense in the contexts of both stories. In this way the audience is encouraged to start seeing connections among the characters and get more deeply involved in their stories.

With Ms. Kreith as director, the talented cast deftly traverses the intricate nature of  Brantley’s script. In Malawi, John P. Keller embodies hope for a better future as Jack, the head of an NGO trying to bring fresh water to the country’s villages. His foil is Ericka, the bottom-line watching MBA brought to life by Naja Selby-Morton, whose mission is to impose business sense on an organization guided by humanitarian impulses. In America, recent Malawian immigrant Gilbert, as portrayed by Kevis Hillocks, is a young man far from his roots, struggling to resist becoming “womanized” by Western ways, clinging to his religious beliefs. Those beliefs cause the open sexuality of his co-worker Chad, played by David Gow, to shock and disgust him but leads him to “preach away the gay” out of misguided concern for Chad’s soul. It is through discussion, sometimes heated, between Jack and Ericka and between Gilbert and Chad, that re-evaluation of positions and actions starts to occur, raising the possibility of reaching some common ground. But reaching it will take “pirira”, the word for “perseverance” in the Malawian language Chichewa.

Scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader have created a space that is believably the NGO storage room and the florist shop workroom at the same time, aided by the lighting by Conor Mulligan and the sound by Megan Culley. The stage space, set between two long sets of risers on either side, comes close to annihilating the separation of cast from audience, enhancing the impact of Mr. Brantley’s play.

J. Stephen Brantley shows himself to a talented and powerful voice

Through dialog and perseverance comes understanding. Through this outstanding play comes hope for a better future. With this work J. Stephen Brantley shows himself to be a talented and powerful voice in the theatre. I strongly urge you to see Pirira at Luna Stage before its run comes to a close.

Pirira is presented by Luna Stage in West Orange through October 28, 2018. For tickets and information, visit LunaStage.org.