THEATER REVIEW: In I Am Not My Motherland, Past and Present Tell Different Stories

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Brian Anthony Wilson, Hannah Gold, and Isabel Sazak in I Am Not My Motherland at Orbiter 3.

We’re often told that nothing is black and white.  But Masha Tsimring’s scenery for I Am Not My Motherland is!  It’s also intriguing, spare, and (no doubt, deliberately) disorienting — a landscape of mixed and seemingly incompatible elements, including a cage, a light board for analyzing x-rays, and a leafless tree that sometimes floats above the stage.

The set turns out to be a good metaphor for the Emily Acker’s ambitious, sometimes effective, but not altogether cohesive play.

Happily, there are shades of gray in the Motherland script.  Several plotlines run through it, most centrally the story of a botched surgery.  The patient (Brian Anthony Wilson, bear-ish and appealing) has kidney cancer, which should be treatable through an operation.  But despite their best intentions, a prominent surgeon, the commanding Dr. Amina Leroy (Isabella Sazak) and her young, eager-to-please resident, Dr. Jessica Rosel (Hannah Gold), manage to make a terrible mistake.

This is, of course, the kind of story often taken up in TV drama.  But Acker is looking for something more interesting, and turns her account into a series of fragmentary scenes, in which the same moments are revisited multiple times.  It’s a cinematic kind of construction, and I don’t think it’s always ideally served by director Rebecca Wright’s highly stylized production.  But Acker is taking the high road here — the story is both factually and morally ambiguous, and she expects the audience to parse it out. (We do, or at least we try —and it’s gripping.)

Motherland also explores larger cultural and generational themes — Dr. Leroy is Palestinian-American, whose childhood was scarred by political upheaval. Dr. Rosel is Jewish, the grandchild of prominent Israeli army surgeon.  A number of scenes flash back to revisit this story, and (like the medical plot) the narrative is fractured. So is the tone, which moves uneasily between humor and pathos.

This is, frankly, more than the 75-minute play can handle. Acker ties things together after a fashion, but it remains unclear what the back story of the characters has to do with their medical careers.  Neither plotline feels sufficiently developed, and despite the use of supertitles in this production to identify the characters, it’s not always clear who they are, or where or when some of the scenes take place.  At these times, the play turns gray in a negative sense — too much is simply muddy.

Orbiter 3 defines itself as a playwriting collective, created to explore and develop new work.  Fair enough, and there’s significant talent shown here.  But I would advise audiences to attend in the spirit of seeing a promising — but as yet still in-progress — project.

I Am Not My Motherland runs through July 31. For more information, visit the Orbiter 3 website.

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