'New' by Pamela Mala Sinha
Produced by Necessary Angel in association with Canadian Stage and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Credit: Dahlia Katz Pictured: Fuad Ahmed and Pamela Mala Sinha
A first-rate production directed with a clear vision and purpose by Alan Dilworth.
Set in Winnipeg, in 1970, ‘New’ follows the lives of three South Asian couples who are friends: Qasim (Ali Kazmi), a medical doctor, reluctantly agrees to an arranged marriage and ties the knot over the phone much to the shock of his girlfriend, Abby (Alicia Johnston). Qasim must then face the reality of this decision to welcome Nuzha (Mirabella Sundar Singh) to Canada.
Sachin (Fuad Ahmed) and Sita (Pamela Mala Sinha) struggle in their marital relationship. Aisha (Dalal Badr) and Ash (Shelly Antony) are a modern, liberated couple who have been challenged by pressures back home.
Nuzha’s arrival becomes the touchstone for these couples to re-examine again where they fit in the world around them and in their relationship with their significant other.
I made a concerted effort not to write any notes in my book about the production as I watched it. Instead, I sat back and allowed the story to take me away to a time that I still believe was not that long ago (even though fifty-plus years have gone by).
I made the right choice to do that here as I didn’t want to miss a minute of this ‘New’.
Lorenzo Savoini’s set design of three separate rooms of the kitchen, living room and bedroom smartly and wisely serve as the home of all three couples. I’m loving the kitschy ’70s set look right down to the shag carpet in the living room and bedroom. The wall phone with the elongated telephone cord was an apt choice. John Gzowski’s terrific sound design of ‘70s music combined with South Asian melodies provided the ideal juxtaposition of two cultures meeting head-on. Michelle Bohn’s capture of the seventies in her costume choices was spot on right down to the men’s plaid checkered pants and ladies’ high-tail boots. The South Asian dresses worn by the ladies remain colourful and eye-catching. Hugh Conacher’s subtle lighting design intensely reflected those moments of dramatic intensity when needed.
In her Playwright’s Note, Pamela Mala Sinha stated some of the things she has tried to capture in the play. One of them immediately caught my eye: “[I have tried to capture] what it means to be thought of as ‘new’ – because of how you look – in a country where you are not new, a country that is your home.”
That statement is powerful and strikes an emotional chord. Being thought of as new in how one looks really hasn’t changed that much from a twentieth to a twenty-first-century societal standpoint. I like to think some progress has been made but we still have a long way to go.
Alan Dilworth directs the play with a clear vision and intended purpose. In his compassionate and capable hands, Sinha’s script naturally flows from its believable dialogue This fine actor ensemble delivers convincing performances of credible emotions which never venture over the top.
Ali Kazmi is a forceful Qasim. He still harbours feelings for Abby while becoming strikingly cold in his relationship with Nuzha. Alicia Johnston’s Abby’s frank confrontation with Qasim about why he has contacted her becomes one noteworthy dramatic highlight. Here is a woman who has chosen willingly to let go of the love of her life, painful as it has been for her. But cultural context also opens how this moment is also painful for Qasim as he too experiences regretful choices just like Abby surrounding this arranged marriage from his family back home.
Mirabella Sundar Singh showcases an intriguing mystery in her demure performance as Nuzha. Initially, a quiet woman who only wants to please her husband Qasim upon her arrival to Canada, Sundar Singh cleverly manipulates the audience’s feelings and reactions to Nuzha’s newly found growing confidence in her behaviour as the story progresses. In the final moment of the play, as Sundar Singh and Kazmi look at each other, their eye contact and vocal tones strongly indicate these are two strong-willed people who will survive no matter the decisions made going forward.
Playwright Sinha tackles the role of Sita with assured conviction. Her relationship with her college professor husband Sachin initially appears grounded; however, the couple’s tragic loss becomes heightened by his growing suspicions about his wife, Nuzha, and how the world he knows has changed. Fuad Ahmed’s charming Sachin in the beginning soon morphs into someone to whom attention must be paid (and not for the right reasons). Solidly dramatic work from Ahmed here.
The seventies were a time of change in so many cultural elements of liberation and freedom to do whatever one wants. As the free-thinking Ash and Aisha, Shelly Antony and Dalal Badr aptly evoke that freedom to do whatever they want if it feels good for them as a couple. Just like Sita and Sachin, Ash and Aisha also suffer painful decisions and choices that need to be confronted as they would have been considered an immediate ruin of their relationship and their individuality. Antony and Badr deliver sound performances of a couple who appears to have it all amid the social changes of the ‘70s. When Ash and Aisha’s world comes crashing down, Antony and Badr soundly keep their emotional intensity in check in their last minutes together. It is the deafening silence between the two of them that says so much.
Final Comments: Passionate and intense one moment while funny and poignant the next, ‘New’ ‘s universal messages of acceptance, loneliness, sacrifice, and love resoundingly touch an emotional chord. The play must continue to be seen by as many people as possible.
Go see it.
Running time: approximately 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission.
‘NEW’ runs until May 14 at Toronto’s Berkeley Street, 26 Berkeley Street. For tickets, visit www.canadianstage.com or call (416) 368-3110.
‘NEW’ by Pamela Mala Sinha
Produced by Necessary Angel Theatre Company in association with Canadian Stage and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Directed by Alan Dilworth
Set Designer: Lorenzo Savoini
Costume Designer: Michelle Bohn
Lighting Designer: Hugh Conacher
Sound Designer: John Gzowski
Stage Manager: Sandy Plunkett
Performers: Fuad Ahmed, Shelly Antony, Dalal Badr, Alicia Johnston, Ali Kazmi, Pamela Mala Sinha, Mirabella Sundar Singh.