When Jewish-American photojournalist Jamie (Brooke Parks) meets a shoeless Syrian boy on the island of Lesvos, she feels compelled to shelter him. But she hasn’t thought through what to do next, and her compulsion to help the boy, Waleed (local actors Mohammad Adam, Hussein Al-Mshakheel, and Anwer Ali, in rotation), is complicated. Seeking advice from a former lover, the journalist Ibrahim (Amro Salama), Jamie revisits a history of relationships and choices. Moving back and forth in time, across continents, and between external and interior worlds, we follow Jamie’s reckonings with language, commitment, and home, in the lyrical Refuge * Malja * ملجأ. Written by local playwright and performer Bess Welden, Refuge is the latest in Portland Stage’s season of shows about borders and boundaries, and is on stage now, under the direction of New York City-based director Kareem Fahmy.
Malja is the Arabic word for refuge, and Welden brought in a translator, Ali Al-Mshakheel, to provide the play’s substantial Arabic dialogue — some with English translation, much without. It’s one of several thoughtful choices that decenter us from a white American perspective. Images projected on a large screen help us range geographically between Greece and Israel, displaying now Jamie’s photographs of refugees, now the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, where she traces the fate of her grandfather. The stage itself presents a wide stretch of Lesvos sand, vast and stark, punctuated by an iconic pile of orange life vests that never leaves the stage.
Here, language is both a barrier and a bridge, as Jamie befriends Waleed and as, in affectingly simple scenes, they photograph shoes and backpacks and their own heads, then teach each other the words for them. Soon, Waleed (played plainly and endearingly by Hussein Al-Mshakheel last Friday) finds increasing pleasure and comfort in the game, and in Jamie.
Meanwhile, the narrative shifts back and forth in time, a bit relentlessly, reconstructing Jamie’s relationship with Ibrahim. As a Princeton-educated Palestinian Israeli (who is dating a lapsed American Jew), Ibrahim lives in what he calls “gray areas” of identity, culture, and home, liminal spaces that the absolute-minded Jamie doesn’t understand and has had the privilege to not have to learn. Sometimes the pair’s dialogue feels a little stock (“We’re not as young as we used to be,” they lament earnestly), but their rapport is quirky and sensual, and the fine Salama brings depth, agility, and humor to his portrayal of Ibrahim, a satisfyingly complex character. He is also a poet, and the verse Welden writes for him, with its lines about olives brined in tears, is rich and evocative.
Jamie, who has run away from people in her life, is in some ways hard to know. In Parks’ hands, she is curious, proud, and restless; she resists being known, even as she seems to lament that she is misunderstood. These qualities keep us at some distance from our stakes in Jamie’s secrets, which we circle. Mothers are a strong motif of the play — Waleed’s absent one, Ibrahim’s mute one, and her own sick one — around which Parks’ Jamie moves with visible tentativeness. Interestingly, she seems most forthcoming, self-aware, and happy as she tells Ibrahim about her “wolf” — a sort of imaginary advisor or conscience. This wolf is part of the show’s frequently expressionist imagery of dreams and perceptions: shoes are suspended over the stage; a bed becomes a boat awash in sea-smoke; a projection of green grass glows with the yellow eyes of Jamie’s wolf. Though the show sometimes reels in its abundance of symbols and motifs — shoes, olives, shoes, boats, wolf — the flavor of these scenes is richly imagined and their stagecraft strikingly realized.
As with its imagery, Refuge covers a lot of ground in its themes — motherhood and family; the ethics of crisis journalism; the liminal spaces of geography, culture, and religion; and the dynamics of home and of displacement, whether forced or self-imposed. At times, it feels like a lot for one story. But it certainly gives us much to consider, especially as it becomes clear that whatever selflessness spurs Jamie to help Waleed, the act also serves her own needs and holes; that it is, on some level, however well-intentioned and welcomed, also a selfish act. In this way, Refuge also functions as an examination of a particular American m.o. in the world. Regardless of the personal circumstances, displacements, and refuges that have led her here, Jamie must reckon with the fact that that at any time, for any reason, big or small – unlike Waleed — she can go home again, and she probably will.
Refuge * Malja * ملجأ | By Bess Welden; directed by Kareen Fahmy | Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave | Through November 18 | Thu-Fri 7:30 pm; Sat 4 & 8 pm; Sun 2 pm; Wed 7:30 pm; Thu 2 & 7:30 pm | $21-41 | portlandstage.org