restricted access The Persian Quarter (review)
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The Persian Quarter. By Kathleen Cahill. Directed by Alexandra Harbold. Salt Lake Acting Company, Salt Lake City. 16 February 2011.

Kathleen Cahill's The Persian Quarter premiered at a particularly potent moment, opening in Salt Lake City just weeks after the Tunisian uprising initiated a revolutionary wave of protest that swept through the Arab world, toppling governments and instigating regime changes. As protesters and, later, opposition forces have argued and fought for democratic reforms, familiar questions about the role of the United States and Western ideologies in the future of the Middle East have arisen. Cahill's play, based on the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2007 visit to Columbia University in New York, addresses many of these issues, considering such traditional binary oppositions as East and West, oppression and freedom, teaching and learning, male and female, covered and uncovered. On the whole, the production moved beyond treating such themes as mere opposites, troubling the dialectical patterns that emerge in many narratives of the relations between the United States and Iran. Weaving together the stories of four women, two countries, and two eras, the production was a remarkably prescient, if flawed exploration of not only the tapestry of transnational politics, but also the individual lives that form the strands.

In director Alexandra Harbold's romanticized staging, Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, whirled onto the stage and introduced The Persian Quarter as "a story told on a Persian carpet . . . an invisible carpet in which we are both the weavers and the threads." This notion of the individual as both acting and acted upon was borne out through the plot, and reinforced through the production's primary visual metaphor, one that hung down behind the stage: a Persian carpet—a mystical, poetic, and material object. The carpet, in its sumptuous complexity, materially reinforced the complicated nature of US/Iranian relations by visibly representing a world that is neither easily constructed nor understood. As a metaphor, it pushed beyond some of the dialectical cultural differences present in the play—particularly the idea that the United States is coldly realistic, while Iran is idealistically romantic—and emphasized the fact that individuals, whether teachers, revolutionaries, or government leaders, weave the cloth of political and cultural life and expectations.

Cahill's play focuses on the distinct experiences of four women in two acts: Ann and Shirin in 1981, and Emily and Azadeh in 2007. In the first pairing, Ann is an idealistic former nun who teaches American literature to Iranian students and becomes one of the US hostages held in Iran beginning on 4 November 1979. Shirin, an Iranian revolutionary who is also one of Ann's former students, becomes Ann's guard on the last day of her captivity. Ann and Shirin's conversation, which Ann believes is a prelude to her execution (although Shirin—and the audience—knows that Ann will soon be released), [End Page 644]

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Nell Gwynn (Ann) and Deena Marie Manzanares (Shirin) in The Persian Quarter. (Photo: Thom Gourley.)

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seems initially to be a fairly predictable diplomatic impasse, with each woman personifying a stereotypical view of her nationality. Ann is smugly superior and pragmatic; Shirin is feverish in faith in a post-revolution Iran. In a dialectical pas de deux, the women argue about definitions of modesty, morality, freedom, and the value of education. Soon, however, they find common ground in their love of Rumi's poetry, which provides them a third language in which to converse, one that is outside of diplomatic niceties and cultural contestation and that allows them to move beyond their entrenched binary positions and speak to each other as people, rather than as nationalities.

Ann, played with vulnerability and grace by Nell Gwynn, initially emerged as the embodiment of brash American optimism and superiority in the face of cultural difference. She failed to understand why her students did not recognize the freedom that a study of English-language poets, especially the US-born Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, inspired. Shirin, meanwhile, represented both naive revolutionary fervor and fierce agency, insisting that this revolution was hers and...