You can’t fault where the heart is in Wendy Graf’s “Closely Related Keys”. It is 2010, just days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11; and just from that setting the stage is emotionally charged. Julia (Diarra Kilpatrick) is an ambitious, young, black woman, confronting both the remnants of racism and the “old boys’ club” as she labors to establish herself at an upscale New York law firm.
She is assigned the prized second chair, working aside her white lover Ron (Ted Mattison), in what could be the case of her life when she receives an unexpected visit from Charlie (Brent Jennings), her father from whom she’s been estranged since her mother’s death.
Charlie had been an independent contactor in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. It was his affair with an Iraqi co-worker during that time that lead to Julia’s mother divorcing him. In her apartment for the first time, he comments on the stark black and white décor. She responds by quoting her late mother, “Bright colors are for little girls and hookers.” As we will later discover, the décor is also reflective of Julia’s world view.
Finally, Charlie awkwardly explains his reason for contacting Julia. He tells her that the years since his return from Iraq were spent trying to discover the fate of his Iraqi lover who disappeared shortly after he left the country, a victim, as it turns out, of Saddam’s death squads. Then he confesses that before his departure he and his lover had had a child, Julia’s half sister, and that she is alive and he’s bringing her to America to audition for Julliard.
Compounding Julia’s shock he then asks if she’ll put up her half sister while she stays in New York. Though far more convoluted, the setup is a tad reminiscence of Barbara Lebow’s wonderful “Shayna Maidel” and explores similar ground: The emotional heartache that ensues when those you should love are strangers to you.
Neyla (Yvonne Huff) arrives, traumatized by the violence she’s experienced in her country, and a deeply religious Muslim. The two women see the strangeness of the other, but will the two sisters be able to find the sameness they share? That is the question of the show.
Ms. Lebow in “Shayna Maidel” focused on the foreignness that existed between the primary characters of the two sisters. Ms. Graf unfurls the emotional rift outward from the sisters, touching on the alienation existing between the father and both his daughters, and in the relationship of Julia and Ron.
Graf nicely counterpoints the emotional emptiness that fractures these relations with the deep affections between Neyla and Tariq (Adam Meir) despite spatial separation by his being in Iraq.
If the script is to be faulted, it may be in the ease with which Ms. Graf unfolds the dramatic action. Everything feels a tad too pat and disappointingly brief in the probing of the issues she presents. The main result of this problematic brevity is that all of the play’s major revelations are too plainly perceptible to pack much of a narrative punch; one example of this, but not the only one, being the nature of the relationship shared by Neyla and Tariq.
The production improves on the play. I have been an admirer of director Shirley Jo Finney since seeing her superb work on “Yellowman” at the Fountain Theatre some years back. This production does nothing to diminish that admiration.
In concert with lighting designer Donny Jackson, graphic designer Olivia Weissblum and set and projection designer Hana Sooyeon Kim, Ms. Finney has orchestrated a beautiful staging in a challenging venue. Starting from a stunning opening tableau, Ms. Finney manages the requirements of a rather demanding script with wonderful aplomb.
Especially well executed are the projections of Ms. Kim employed to give a sweeping sense of distance and motion to a stage that allows for little of either.
The cast is thoroughly solid.
All of the cast, particularly Ms. Huff and Ms. Kilpatrick, are to be soundly commended for their talent and professionalism in braving an excess of those trials and tribulations that equity-wavier theatre is heir to, and succeeding in opening a show so worthy of praise.
This is a gentle show of the heart, and as I said at the outset you can’t question its humanity. Ms. Graf’s play is a wonderful reminder for us all, that humanity is not our condition, but our goal.
Closely Related Keys
Performances: Feb. 22 – March 30
Fridays at 8 p.m.: March 14, 21, 28
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: March 15, 22, 29
Sundays at 4 p.m.: March 16, 23, 30 (dark March 2)
Fridays and Sundays: $25