October 17, 2012
By John Olson
I suspect many are unaware, as I was, of the genocide committed against Armenians by Turks in the first two decades of the 20th century. Those atrocities are not precisely the theme of this ambitious and rich new play by Adriana Sevahn Nichols, but they are ever-present in this complex and compelling story of family and particular immigrant experiences in America. It concerns the family of two refugees from Armenia who meet and marry in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the 1920s. Ardavazt (who goes by "Jimmy") and Alice Oghidanian both lost their entire families through the genocide and, with the birth of their daughter Aghavni in 1930, they begin a new family of their own.
The stunning first act moves back and forth in time and geography between 1914-15 in Armenia and the '20s and '30s in Massachusetts. It reveals the circumstances of the genocide, the couple's courtship and marriage, and Alice's descent into mental illness and institutionalization. In this act, time and place shift quickly; memories of youth and happiness—Ardavzat's 18th birthday, Alice's memories of her mother—are quickly interrupted by scenes of brutality. These abrupt shifts create an exceptionally meaty role for Sandra Delgado as Alice. Alice changes in age from 14 to late twenties and thirties in scenes that show her as an innocent teen, hopeful young adult, depressed housewife, and institutionalized patient. Delgado makes these shifts on a dime, and they are done with complete conviction and clarity. Alice's tragic and panoramic life is heartbreakingly real in Delgado's performance and we're with her throughout the gripping hour and fifteen-minute first act. In the second act, Delgado is given still another challenge—playing Alice's now-adult daughter (who now calls herself Ava) as a thirty-something in the early 1960s, with flashbacks to her teen years. The older Ava is a less complex character and, accordingly, Delgado's portrayal of it is less surprising than her work in the first act. In total, though, the actress's work in this play is formidable.
Nichols—particularly in the first act—tells the story in a nonlinear fashion, dropping hints and symbols along the way that will not be completely clear until the end of the play. She begins the action with a lone woman on stage repeating some names over and over. The woman is standing beneath the branches of a tree that extend over the stage, and there are scarves tied to these branches. The identity of this woman and the significance of the tree and the scarves are eventually fully explained along with a detailed description of the atrocities in Armenia that forced Ardavazt and Alice to feel to America.
Nichols fills the play with many topics and ideas beyond the horrors of the genocide and, though her points are clearly made, there are perhaps too many. She addresses feminism and the traditional roles of women that are expected by the cultures from which these immigrants came. We're shown a kind but controlling husband in Ardavazt, whom Levi Holloway plays effectively as a deeply sad and troubled man. He seeks to keep Alice at home, even though she would like to pursue a singing career, which he believes to be the province of "whores." He believes she should bear many children even after she begs him that they stop with one. Thirty years later, daughter Ava faces a different challenge in her marriage to a Dominican-born musician, who shares his culture's liberal attitudes toward marital fidelity. There's also a consideration of the archaic mental health care practices of the early century, in which Alice is forced to endure electroshock therapy in an institutionalization from which she will never return. While Nichols' primary theme—the rebuilding of families destroyed by a genocide that claimed some two million Armenians over 20 years—stands out, the power of this message is somewhat diluted by the many themes and ideas in the play.
The language of the play ranges from beautifully poetic to pedestrian (though more the former than the latter). Take the subject of dreams—they're poetically described when the teenaged Alice is told by her mother that "dreams expire—and the trouble is you don't know when." But in act two, the more pedestrian is found when Ava defiantly proclaims, "I have dreams ... and I'm going to live them." The second act has larger problems than that, though. While its story of Ava's meeting and marrying a handsome young singer (Nicolas Gamboa) from the Dominican Republic in 1961 is a welcome respite from the intense tragedy of the first act, its plot becomes mostly a routine story of domestic strife. It includes a scene in which Ardavazt (played in this act by Rom Barkhordar) reunites with Ava after a 15-year estrangement. The reunion begins promisingly but turns into an argument in which they simply rehash details the audience already knows. There are a few slow spots in this act, which seems to exist mostly to provide a means of reconstructing the families Ardavazt and Alice lost to the Turks' violence.
Director Lisa Portes establishes a steady pace and finds striking ways to visualize the poetry of Nichols' words and ideas. The cast of eight seems larger than that as all except Holloway play multiple roles. A haunting performance is given by Diana Simonzadeh first as Alice's wise mother, then later as the older Alice after years of institutionalization. There's also some nice character work by Michael Salinas as a cop with a Boston Irish accent and as the delightfully slippery 1960s show biz impresario Johnny Jewels (as well as three other characters). The many locales and time periods are brought to life through the set by Lee Keenan and costumes by Elsa Hiltner, while Sarah Hughey's lighting design helps to manage the frequent time/place transitions.
Though the play is long (2 hours and 45 minutes including an intermission) and could use some trimming and focus, it's nearly always gripping. The Erzinga of the title is the town in western Armenia from which Ardavazt fled, and the night refers to his father's interest in star-gazing. Early in the play, a Turkish soldier visits the house to seek any draft-aged men to be inducted into the army. Though the family successfully hides Ardavazt from the soldier, before leaving, the soldier destroys one of the father's homemade telescopes, believing it to be a weapon of some kind. The event is a chilling juxtaposition of brutality next to gentleness and a reminder that the two live side by side in the world. Armenians are of course just one of the many immigrant groups who have become our fellow citizens in the U.S., and one of the smaller ones at that. But the greater resonance of Night Over Erzinga is that so many of our neighbors have tragedy or hardship in the family histories that brought them to North America. Seeing this play, we are gratefully reminded how much we can learn, in very human terms, about our world and our community.