For most Americans, "Syria" is unfortunately no more than a fleeting subject in our daily lives: yet another trending topic reduced to a capsule article in our internet news feed, or an issue occasionally getting a few minutes of airtime on TV. The humanitarian aspects of the concurrent Syrian civil war and refugee crisis have often been overshadowed by political slants, and/or reduced to soulless statistics. While the numbers are astonishing (To escape the violence, about 9.5 million Syrians-- half the population-- have been displaced since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011.), the horror stories which occasionally reach the masses are often quickly forgotten in the Western world as we move on to another competing issue. Sadly, it's a safe bet that most Americans can't even find Syria on a map, much less get the opportunity to speak with anyone affected directly by the crisis. In the stunning new play Lost and Guided, writer/director Irene Kapustina explores the lives of four young men and women behind the numbers. Ninety percent of the words of Lost and Guided are taken directly from the transcripts of Kapustina’s interviews with Syrian refugees in the United States. Those words are brought to vivid life by a young and dynamic cast.
We meet the four characters of Lost and Guided, starting with the two female friends Rima and Amina. The thirty-something Rima (Mouna R'Miki) is a restless spirit— a dedicated but desperate housewife and mother of three. Her huge, expressive eyes convey a hunger to experience a life beyond her traditional domestic expectations. She escapes through reading and writing in her collection of spiral bound journals, which she eventually hopes to get published. Her serene, pragmatic friend Amina (the delightful Mischa Ipp) has a more "Que sera sera" attitude on life. Aside from Amina’s telltale hijab, their casual girl-to-girl banter seems indistinguishable from that of two young women of any culture. Shortly afterward, we meet Rima's brother Sami (Shayan Sobhian), a kind-hearted and dedicated young doctor; and Amina's fiancee Imad (Doga Celik), also a doctor, who will soon be leaving for a year of medical study in the United States-- specifically, post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. They are a close family, enjoying tea and the soothing sounds of muwaššaḥ-- and occasionally indulging in such Syrian treats as makdous (oil-cured eggplant bites). Put another way, they are just living their lives. Their domestic tranquility becomes unsettled by the increasing unrest in their beloved homeland. At first, the men view the protests in the streets (which, apparently, has been rare in Syria's history) as a positive thing. As Sami states, "People are finally saying something... We want answers. We want justice. And we will get it, brother!... And guess what? The world is talking about us. For the first time, I wake up with hope for my life and my country!"
The seductive prophet of change, disguised as hope for more democracy and freedom for Syrian people, slowly starts to make an ugly metamorphosis. The daily life of these characters, so focused on their family ties, starts to change... and those changes sneak up on them like one of Syria's famous droughts. As said before, these engaging characters just want to live their lives. As the play progresses however, the word "live" takes on a very literal meaning. Neither their strong family bond nor their strong faith can save them from Syria's upcoming civil war. Rima's husband (whom the audience never actually sees) joins Assad's army, ostensibly for his family's protection-- but it puts his feisty young wife in an impossible position. Slowly, violence starts to establish itself as a fact of life, including the background sounds of bombs and Sami being greeted at the entrance of his hospital by a fragment of a missile. In a harrowing and foreboding scene, Sami tells of a pre-written draft in his cell phone which, with one press of a key, will let his loved ones know if and when "the moment" has come. Meanwhile in America, Imad realizes that he may be unwittingly staying at his new "home" longer than planned, since he will not be able to return to Syria. Eventually, one of the characters makes the decision to stay in the homeland despite the danger, while another decides to make the 10 hour hike to a refugee camp in Jordan-- leaving behind friends, family, and the only life that she's known. Another character actually gets killed for attempting to help a wounded person.
Lost and Guided packs an emotional wallop into its 90 minute running time. Rather than the brief, often heavily politically-tinged news stories and articles on the Syrian situation, the play tells the flesh-and-blood stories of four everyday people. The lesson of the importance of family is provocatively touched upon a telling scene between Imad and one of his American patients (played with quiet and affecting grace by Susan Cohen Destefano); both are living alone in the United States for widely different reasons. Indeed, the play also explores religious and political themes... but again, these themes are always through the eyes and souls of the characters. The women face a crisis of faith-- not of Islam itself but rather how their religion is being twisted and exploited by their own so called “leaders”. The men, communicating via cell phone on opposite ends of the world, discuss the bleak political situation (Sami declares, "Syria is like a playground for big powers... So it the end? I don't know. I'd ask Obama and Putin.") as well as how the Syrian refugees are being rejected, even by the Arab countries. In a stunningly simple yet amazingly effective creative touch, the set of Lost and Guided is slowly deconstructed to symbolize the the destruction of a family, a country, and a culture.
The cast is excellent, with the four leads (Celik, Ipp, R'Miki, and Sobhian) portraying their character's co-existing strengths and vulnerabilities with naked candor. Playing multiple roles, the supporting cast (Destefano, Alexandra Kattan, and Jarrod Zayas) all have their moments as well. As Rima, Mouna R'Miki is a standout; the actor can speak volumes with her face. Those same eyes which displayed Rima’s restless spirit in the beginning convey a pressure cooker of fear, anger, and desperation in one of the play’s many climaxes later on. In one of Lost and Guided’s most emotionally challenging scenes, she stares at the audience as if gazing directly back into the eyes of her bleakly uncertain future. We pray for her to blink, to give us a moment of mercy... and she doesn't. When her books are destroyed during a home invasion, it's like seeing her soul being destroyed on stage. But that's only one of many intense and sometimes difficult-to-watch moments in this outstanding piece. For the audience to endure these characters' struggles, we want at least some promise of a vestige of hope for them at the end of the play. Lost and Guided ultimately honors that promise... but it also tears at the heartstrings on the way to find it.
Lost and Guided, presented by Conrad Fischer and The Angle Project, continues through Sunday, August 27 at Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, between 1st Avenue & A Avenue, NYC. Visit www.LostandGuided.com for tickets and more information.