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Stage Review

‘Persian Quarter’ a panorama too light on history

Christina Pumariega (left) and Beth Wittig play an Iranian and an American, respectively, and their daughters, years later, in “The Persian Quarter’’ at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Christina Pumariega (left) and Beth Wittig play an Iranian and an American, respectively, and their daughters, years later, in “The Persian Quarter’’ at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. (Meghan Moore)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / September 21, 2011

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LOWELL - It’s easy to be a retroactive clairvoyant where well-known world events are concerned. In a new work, “The Persian Quarter,’’ receiving its regional premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, playwright Kathleen Cahill has a young Iranian woman declare in 1980, at the outset of Ayatollah Khomeini’s retrogressive regime, that “In 25 years, we will be the most free and beautiful country on earth.’’

This is irony writ large, and fairly typical of a script that takes a paint-by-numbers approach to a complex situation. We get to tsk-tsk knowingly when Ann Gillies, a teacher taken hostage at the US Embassy in 1979, abjures the very idea of her homeland’s involvement in the 1953 coup that led to the reinstatement of the shah (and, handily, readier access to Iran’s oil reserves). “American diplomats hiring thugs to overthrow your elected leader?’’ she protests to her guard. “That’s a ridiculous story.’’

To be this naive so late in the game, Gillies - who is clued in enough to moonlight as a CIA informant - must have truly had her head in a book. And lest we miss the point, Cahill provides a cameo flashback in which diplomat Kermit Roosevelt, who engineered the overthrow, all but rubs his hands in glee as he recalls the thrills of instigating “dirty tricks.’’

It’s a shame Cahill adopted such an approach, because the play achieves brief passages of real drama, and director Kyle Fabel has assembled a cast clearly capable of greater nuance.

Beth Wittig, whose emotions seem to play out like swamp fire across the surface of her skin, is a standout as Gillies, an ex-nun who signed on with “the Company’’ because, as she later reveals, “I wanted to prove that I was as tough as any of them - as any man.’’

That combativeness colors her exchanges with a semi-rogue operative named Mike (Jason Kolotouros) - his function is vague - as they flirt poolside in the US compound. They have clearly had at least one encounter, and are gearing up for more when the revolution thrusts them onto the world stage, and into 444 days of captivity.

For a political prisoner, Gillies is awfully hostile and mouthy. Up until a jacked-up moment of reckoning, she seems oblivious to the fact that the veiled woman bringing her food (Christina Pumariega, assigned an absurd accent and an unfair share of portentous pronouncements) may well hold the power of life and death.

The second act is essentially a coda: Now it’s Gillies’s adult daughter Emily (Wittig again), a feisty aspiring paparazza, tussling with Shirin’s daughter Azadeh (Pumariega), on the occasion of prime minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 address at Columbia University.

Emily just wants a quick shot before heading off to snap Britney Spears; Azadeh, there to try to promote a “Rumi Poetry Club’’ in honor of her country’s famous 13th-century poet, insists that she be photographed as well. She wants to force Emily to acknowledge that “I am a woman. Just like you.’’ And she’s willing to go to the mat to prove it.

To employ Emily’s favorite fallback response: “Whatever.’’

But what do you want to bet that Azadeh will manage to break through Emily’s veneer of nonchalance, segueing from a series of “ your mother’’ insults - comical in their intensity - to a shared lament for the damage that each young woman’s family has been forced to endure?

Cahill tries to cram so much detail, including flashes of magical realism, into her panoramic snapshot that the result is too busy, while remaining overly simplistic.

Sandy MacDonald can be reached at sandy@sandymacdonald.com.

THE PERSIAN QUARTER Play by Kathleen Cahill

Directed by: Kyle Fabel. Set, Campbell Baird. Lights, Brian Lilienthal. Costumes, Theresa Squire. Sound designer-composer: J Hagenbuckle. Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Through Oct. 9. Tickets: $24-$60. 978-654-4678, www.merrimackrep.org