The Beauty Inside
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 16, 2005
At the beginning of Catherine Filloux’s play The Beauty Inside, Devrim Inan is one week away from leaving her job as a human-rights lawyer in Istanbul and moving to New York to take a position in a big corporate American law firm. A single professional woman, born in Istanbul to a Turkish father and an American mother, molded after her mother’s death into a Harvard-educated lawyer by her successful attorney father, Devrim exemplifies the secular, westernized face of Turkey.
Yalova Kiree, a fourteen-year-old girl from a village in Southeastern Turkey, might as well be from a different country—possibly even a different world. A devout Muslim from a farming family, she is brutally raped by a neighbor and then left for dead in a local canal—not by her rapist but by her brother, who is trying to restore the family’s honor by killing his shamed and pregnant sister. But Yalova survives, and therefore becomes a test case for lawyers like Devrim, who see in her the chance to speak out for all the silenced victims of honor killings before and since. As Devrim says: “When the girl dies, the crime disappears. Not you, Yalova. Not you.”
All of the above takes place in the play’s first three scenes. The rest of the play is the story of the relationship, both professional and personal, that develops between Yalova and Devrim as they struggle through the case and through Yalova’s pregnancy. Each is horrified by aspects of the other’s life, but over the course of the play we see resigned willingness to put up with each other gradually turn to respect and then genuine affection that is sisterly, friendly, and motherly all at once—and it’s never entirely clear who’s mothering whom.
It’s simple and could be far too schematic (East versus West, traditional versus modern, religious versus secular, etc.) but what makes the relationship—and the play—work is that Filloux resists the temptation to portray the issues in black and white. I think the choice to set the play within Turkey, rather than making the split between a “modern” nation and a “backward” one, helps in this. And in fact one of the questions the play grapples with is national identity, and what one’s responsibility to one’s culture is. Filloux also never forgets the personal cost of trying to change the world; both Yalova and Devrim take huge risks—for Yalova, a chance of reconciling with her family, and for Devrim, her relationship with her father and potentially her job in New York—and Filloux doesn’t try to make one more valuable or relevant than the other.
She condemns honor killing, of course, but does not tar with the same brush Yalova’s faith, her love for her family, or even her calm insistence that Devrim is a whore who will dry up like a pickle from not having children. At the same time, Filloux makes it clear that Yalova’s world desperately needs to be changed, and only an outsider, only someone committed to the rule of secular national law, is going to be able to effect such change. And yet, in Devrim’s own life, her relationship with her father is compromised by his defense of a client who acted unethically but within the letter of the law. The personal, the ethical, the juridical, the political, and the religious are so intertwined here that sometimes the play threatens to topple under the weight of all it’s trying to do, but the strength of the relationship between Devrim and Yalova keeps the play from feeling didactic.
Director Kay Matschullat’s fluid, graceful staging and crisp pacing also help the play avoid getting bogged down in ideas. And Takeshi Kata’s abstract set beautifully evokes both the stone-and-brushed-steel decor of an urban office building, and the mountains and dirt of Yalova’s village.
Strong, grounded performances by Tatiana Gomberg as Yalova and Michelle Rios as Peri, Yalova’s mother, keep us empathizing with and feeling compassion even for those characters who are most alien to us. (In fact, Gomberg is sometimes so grounded and composed that I forgot how young Yalova is supposed to be.) We feel Peri’s love for her daughter even as we hear her rejection of Yalova. Peri’s life, too, is destroyed by the events of the play, and neither Filloux nor Rios flinches from this truth. Jennifer Gibbs plays Devrim with a wry unsentimentality that works better in the early sections of the play than towards the end. We see clearly her ambition and her fire, but she never seems genuinely affected by the huge changes in her life that this case wreaks.