Precious Stones
/ by R. Sheth

February 16, 2003
By Venus Zarris

Several years back I was told by a prominent Chicago theater director that, in regards to writing scripts, "Gay male characters are funny, lesbians are depressing." Thank goodness that times have changed and now everyone gets to be funny as well as depressed. Regardless of your sex or sexual orientation, all you have to do is be at least semi-conscious to the events of modern life and you'll find plenty to be despondent about and LOTS to laugh at.

This is the story of a Jewish woman and a Palestinian woman who come together to attempt to organize an Arab-Jewish dialogue group here in Chicago. It takes place while the first Palestinian uprising rages through Israel in 1989. Of course they fall in love, because we all know that NOTHING sets the mood for love with lesbians like drama! And they are faced with enough social, political, class, sexual, and of course DYKE drama to keep an entire softball league of lesbians busy for a lifetime!

"Precious Stones" is an incredibly serious and intense play that engages the audience on several levels. The subject matter of the conflict in the Middle East is perhaps one of the saddest topics available to a writer but in this piece it also manages to be extremely entertaining. I can't remember seeing another play that covers so many topics from so many angles so effectively. Playwright Jamil Khoury has created a script that poignantly examines a great deal of perspectives on numerous loaded issues with incredible clarity and humanity.

Roxane Assaf and Nicole Pittman are wonderful as not only our politically and sexually charged lovers but as all of the other characters in the cast as well. Michael Najjar superbly directs this two woman multi-character play. A less competent director and actors would have stumbled over this script but they deliver it almost flawlessly, even the scene that opens the second act where the two women play six characters in a hysterical and almost disastrous party of errors. These women depict a delightful level of sexual tension and chemistry together!

In one scene in bed our lovers are talking of the conflict in Israel. Leila, played by Assaf, asks why the Jews chose Israel after World War II and not part of Europe as their homeland. Andrea, played by Pittman, explains that, "A lot of Jews believe that God gave them that land." Leila retorts, "Since when was God in the real estate business?"

The lovers have a little spat over the origin of falafel. Andrea calls it Jewish food. Leila calls it Palestinian. For me this was reminiscent of an actual argument I had with a friend in college. I, being Greek, said that baklava was a Greek pastry and my Lebanese friend Mohaned argued that it was originally from Lebanon. The women in the play came to the compromise that it was Middle Eastern food. As I recall Mo and I did not come to such and easy conciliation but then again we weren't about to make sweet love! Sex has a way of facilitating conflict resolution.

Nicole Pittman is quirky and intense as Andrea. She's incredibly talented but needs to slow her pace down. She rushes through too much of her dialogue and this makes the seduction as well as the conflict at times a bit forced.

Roxane Assaf is remarkable as Leila. All of her characterizations are strong and distinct and she has an extraordinarily commanding presence. She delivers a truly outstanding and memorable performance.

Written and produced by two men, who declare their life partnership with each other in the stage bill, this is one of the most sensitive and accurate depictions of gay women I've seen on stage. It's a marvelous production that will be extremely enjoyed and should be enthusiastically supported by our community.

Although it possesses a great deal of warmth and humor "Precious Stones" is often times heart wrenching. Unfortunately there seems to be little hope for solutions to this catastrophic dilemma until people from all sides manage to open their minds and hearts to each other, which seems unlikely given all of the suffering that has been inflicted. Still, Silk Road Theatre Project's world premiere production of a Syrian-American playwright, a Lebanese- American director, a Jewish- American actor and a Palestinian- American actor' s collaboration is a stones throw in the right direction.

3 1/2 STARS