THEATRE OF THE BLURB
From Chennai-based theatre group, Evam, comes The Long Way Home, a collaboration between writer Shekinah Jacob and director Karthik Kumar for Writers' Bloc. The play tries to unsatisfactorily marry a socio-realist concern with a 'theatre of catharsis'. Meera (played by Amrutha Varshini), is a young woman who has disengaged herself from her mother and sister for more than a year, and must now cope with them suddenly arriving at her doorstep unannounced, so that the family can be together on her birthday. The incident that brought about this estrangement was the disappearance of her sister's child while he was in her care. The play opens as Meera's attempts to recover the child from the wastelands of the city's orphan trade (by breaking into orphanages to steal admittance records, for instance) have been repeatedly frustrated, and have brought her in contact with some rather unsavory people, whose shady dealings may have been compromised by her anxiety-fueled nosiness.
Amrutha Varshini bears the emotional baggage in this play.
Meera's excursions into the murky world of child trafficking, are represented not as staged set-pieces but as projections of cinéma vérité footage recorded on a hidden camera she carries in her hand-bag. These bursts of sharp satire—interestingly shot and entertaining in their own right—stand out in stark contrast to the despondence on stage, except when the two worlds collide occasionally. In a pivotal scene, Meera is followed home by miscreants. As the women lock themselves in and cower in the dark fearfully, tending to a wounded Meera, a scene of some tenderness is affected in the candlelight—beautifully realized with little electrical lights switched on one at a time, to simulate the manner in which candles are lit off a flame (which poses a technical problem when Meera needs to blow them out all at once to bring in her birthday). The lighting scheme involves more on-stage lighting, with real lamps stationed in the corners of the living room that fills out most of the stage. The bright lights aren't quite easy on the eye, so it's welcome relief when the stage is suffused with profile lighting from above instead.
The central relationship in the play is between Meera and her mother (played by Anita Ratnam). Ms Ratnam, with her strong stage presence, brings a certain gravitas to her character. Although given to little vanities and contradictions, she is never quite as insufferable as the writing seems to suggest. Even in her short-sighted assessment of her daughter's life—she would prefer Meera work on a novel rather than churn out fluffy magazine articles—she still exudes reserves of the maternal compassion that drives the filial bond between the two women. It is a rendition that resorts to old-style histrionics at times, but most of the hand-wringing in the piece is left to Meera, with Ms Varshini fashioning a performance that somewhat predictably follows a downward spiral.
After a while, it gets harder to stay with her persistent whining especially when it becomes clear that the play has squandered any chance of affecting an actual catharsis. Meera suffers from crushing depression, but in this collegiate style staging of her interior world, the right moments are never collected, contemplated or internalized. After all, even kitchen-sink melodrama needs its emotions to be spoken for. The scene with the candles doesn't quite provide the stirring pay-off that a six-hanky weepie yearns for (but usually never attains). For all her foolhardiness, Meera lacks gumption. Her nicks and cuts and petty bruises don't cast her in any heroic light. The others are equally benign. Their dysfunction is a natural habitat for such blithe souls.
A touching scene that doesn't really pay off satisfactorily.
Ultimately, like some other Writer's Bloc plays, this is classic 'theatre of the blurb', where the politics of the piece remains limited to what can be summed up in a nutshell in the publicity material. It's all very well to overlay the drama with news clips and found footage, but trimmings are not quite enough. While the play tries to grapple with the human costs, it would have served the enterprise better to have accessed the larger picture more probingly, maybe take us straight to the heart of the action. Otherwise the incidental details that connect the women to the murkiness outside seem disingenuous and convenient, as if only to buttress up a premise that is already on shaky ground. For the Writer's Bloc workshops to be seen as more than just an exercise in a kind of theatre evangelism, with India being just another spot on the map, it is important to build upon the tenuous connections that so many of these emerging works seem to have with the subject matter that they are ostensibly seeking to harness into submission.
This review was originally featured in the Mumbai Theatre Guide