Urge for Going
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 7, 2011
What I liked best about Mona Mansour's new play Urge for Going is what it taught me about something I know almost nothing about. How many in the theatre audience have lived in refugee camps for even a short period, let alone all their life? I certainly never have, and I have to confess that I've never really thought about what it would like to do so. Urge takes place in a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, one that was set up right after the British "partition" of Palestine in 1948, which resulted in the creation of the state of Israel. Here the characters in Mansour's play live, some since it was established; the younger ones, all their lives.
What I didn't like about Urge for Going, though, is that I left hungry to learn much more about everyday life for these refugees. I found—now that I was confronting the subject head-on—that I was curious about so much: where do these people work? How are they paid? Where do they shop? How do they socialize, play, learn, worship? While the reprehensibility of even the existence of these camps is clearly demonstrated by the play—Mansour includes several direct-address scenes where the older generation confronts the audience about this issue—ultimately the world of the camps becomes simply a backdrop for a surprisingly conventional drama about a young woman in conflict with her traditionalist father.
The play revolves around Jamila, who is 17 and very bright and eager to take advantage of a one-time-only opportunity to take examinations that, if she passes, may enable her to attend college outside Lebanon. To take the test, she needs her father Adham to prove his identity via his passport, something he keeps putting off doing. Adham was a promising scholar studying in London (where he lived with his wife, Abir) at the time of what Americans and Israelis call the Six Day War in 1967. When Adham and Abir returned home, they were quickly dispatched to the refugee camp where his brother Hamzi and her brother Ghassan also resided—never to return to the promised career and life they had been planning for. How much does this have to do with Adham's seeming reluctance to help his daughter out of the camp?
A secondary plot revolves around Adham and Abir's son, Jul, who is a couple of years older than Jamila. He was a bright young student, too, but when we meet him we see that his mental faculties are severely impaired—his intelligence and socialization skills seem stuck in much earlier childhood. Through a series of scenes between Jamila and Jul, in which they play "Talk Show," we learn about the tragedy that kept Jul from becoming the man he was supposed to be.
The characters and stories are fascinating, but the play never fully engaged me. I was always aware of Mansour's writer's hand; and beyond that, too aware of what felt like restrictions that someone—perhaps the playwright, perhaps others—had imposed on this work: it needs to be all in a single set, it needs to be one act, it needs to have a small cast. The now-overused device of having characters talk to the audience to set up exposition drives much of Urge for Going. I felt that I was in the presence of an unusual talent in Mansour, but her voice doesn't feel pure and undistilled in this production.
All six actors do fine work: Omid Abtahi (Jul), Jacqueline Antaramian (Abir), Tala Ashe (Jamila), Demosthenes Chrysan (Hamzi), Ramsey Faragallah (Adham), and Ted Sod (Ghassan).
The play is directed at the Public's beautiful Anspacher Theater by Hal Brooks. The Anspacher is a thrust stage, with seating on three sides; Brooks doesn't seem to have checked out the sitelines and stage pictures from anywhere but the center section, with the result that about half the audience doesn't see the play as clearly as it should. Also, I was puzzled by Brooks's choice to have the actors playing the older generation speak with accents while the younger actors did not.
The set by Jason Simms, costumes by Jenny Mannis, lighting by Tyler Micoleau, and sound and music by Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson are all top-notch; it's terrific that the Public, through its Lab program, are presenting new work by emerging playwrights with such excellent production values. I am glad to have heard Mansour's voice here, and to have started to understand the depth of my ignorance about a serous injustice currently being perpetrated in the so-called civilized world. I look forward to learning more about both in the future.