This is the first installment of Judges 15:15, a column by Joshua Bolchover, SY ’25 and Judah Millen, PC ’24. The name of the column refers to the Old Testament passage in which Samson slays a thousand philistines with the jaw of an ass. Make of that what you will.
One woman stands in a bridal dress, two women attend her, one slumps on a couch, one leans on the wall. Shoes litter the floor of a fashionable Persian lounge, fitted with an ornate rug and majestic mosaic wall. Wish You Were Here begins in medias res, yet we have all we need to know.
Salme (played by Bahar Beihaghi) is preparing for her wedding in the year 1978. The women surrounding her are close friends—Nazanin (Anita Abdinezhad), Rana (Vaneh Assadourian), Zari (Ava Lalezarzadeh) and Shideh (Shadee Vossoughi)—all around the age of 18. Jokes, not for the prude, highlight their ‘immature’ optimism and naïveté. Youthful dreams of marriage, sexual awakenings, education, and travel animate the discussion: they talk about going to Tehran or Miami, large penises, unknown entities on their doorstep. Nazanin hopes to be an engineer, Zari longs for sex, Shideh frets over medical school examinations, Rana drags a cigarette. These early scenes are exuberant and flecked with references to popular culture (including a plate with Jimmy Carter’s face on it). This is the new generation and change is on their horizon.
After a year and a scene, much has changed. Though we only hear ‘Revolution’ once in the entirety of the play and the action never leaves the living room, the outside world of 1979 Iran invades the discussions and dynamic of the friend group. Rana, a Jewish woman, is missing without a trace and for Nazanin, this absence cuts particularly deep. Another marriage somewhat dissipates the gloom and worry: Zari is going to fulfill her sexual desires that night with her soon-to-be husband. Shideh shines in these early scenes, crucially balancing the rising solemnity of the play with humorous outbursts and witticisms. Life inside the house proceeds with minimal disruption despite the echoes of external upheaval..
Rana’s escape is not the last one the group will endure. As it becomes increasingly clear that Iran in the 80s offers little to satisfy aspiring women, Shideh leaves to study medicine in America. Back in Iran, sirens and discussions of bombings fill the darkened, candlelit room. Salme has exchanged secular books for the Quran, embracing religion and prayer to the bemusement (and occasional frustration) of Nazanin and Zari. But three is too few to sustain the group dynamic, as Salme and Nazanin find a duo more comfortable than a trio. The crumbling domestic world mirrors the splinters of the one outside. The set aptly reflects this discord, as the mosaic wall—a solid, foundational background—is turned to an uncomfortable angle.
Islam is the elephant in the room for much of the play; the 1979 revolution is religiously motivated and many of the restrictions the women chafe against are the result of more orthodox teachings being enforced. The depiction of Islam, notably Salme’s professed devotion, is at times powerful but also confusing. When she prays for her missing friends with emergency sirens in the background, the solemn bowing and recitation is tender. However, when Nazanin lashes out at Salme for the latter’s desire to pray prior to the former’s wedding—“I want a day without your prayers”—the implication is less clear. The anger towards zealotry is apparent, but we are offered no further reconciliation. That this scene directly precedes Salme’s death produces further ambiguity; are we intended to understand her as receiving some form of punishment? Is the death due to the fact that she went swimming while wearing a burka or could it have been the result of her flouting of religious laws and exposing too much skin in the river?
War and tragedy can beget beginnings; Salme’s death marks a turning point for the group as they find their feet in the new Iran. Nazanin rekindles her friendship with Zari and Shideh returns with her laughter. Loss forces the group to an early maturity: ignorance, encapsulated by the once-youthful and self-admittedly ‘dumb’ Zari, is a privilege that can no longer be afforded. Poignantly, Zari asks Nazanin, “do you love me because I’m the only one left?” We also learn about Nazanin’s kids (two boys whom we never formally meet). Despite these fresh starts, there is the torment of dreams extinguished: what if Nazanin had been able to pursue her engineering dream? What if Rana had never had to leave?
The final piece in the puzzle—what happened to Rana—is finally solved in the ending scene, over a decade after the start of the play. Rana calls Nazanin from California. She is working at a Pizza Hut. She describes the spiritual flatness of suburban America while recognizing its appeal and emotionally arguing for its benefits. Namely that her children will never know of the turmoil of Iran, of flight and persecution. Her children will have quiet existences, along with sugary Pepsi. Nazanin decides to lie about her children, acting as if she has none. Part of her is still living in 1978, smoking cigarettes and dreaming of engineering. The play argues that however much we may always try to look forward, our past persists in following us.
This sentiment makes sense in the wake of the domestic upheaval we have just witnessed. Still, it seems like we are being told that the most reasonable way to avoid political violence and the heartbreak it engenders is to retreat from vibrant urban communities to the atomized world of the Orange County McMansion. It doesn’t sit right to imagine American suburbia as the solution to the personal devastation of repressive regimes. Even as a depiction of a real thought trend in the 80s and 90s, the way this solution is presented unquestioningly and triumphantly doesn’t deliver satisfaction.
Wish You Were Here makes a powerful argument for the persistent permeability of the personal and political. Without leaving the living room(s) of its characters, its narrative arc is compelling and exudes fidelity, meticulously cushioned with lightheartedness. At times, the movement of the play felt awkward: Salme’s sudden death and Rana’s phone call to Nazanin could have been more developed given their centrality to the plot. Yet the Herculean performances from the five-woman cast did justice to Sanaz Toossi’s award-winning script. With Sivan Battat’s thoughtful direction and clever use of a minimal set, they delivered all other scenes and messages subtly and acutely.
A highly recommended evening.
Length: 1 hr 40 minutes (no interval)
Theatre: Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel Street, New Haven)
Playing until: October 28th
Written By: Sanaz Toossi
Directed By: Sivan Bittat