At: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets: 312-633-0630; www.chicagodramatists.org; $18-$40. Runs through: April 12
The pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is one of the holiest obligations of Islam; a journeywith rituals and prayersto be completed by every devout Muslim. The Hajj today is inseparable from overbooked, under-facilitated religious tourism, but that's a fact of the play and not its point. This world premiere examines the Hajj experience through the lives and intentions of five Muslim women of diverse backgrounds, now living in the United States.
The play is somewhat like a war movie where the platoon has Irish, Italian, Latino, Polish, Black and Asian soldiers. You get just enough background on each without delving too deep as you watch them learn to support and sustain each other. The difference is none of these women die, although death has been part of the life journeys of several of them.
The tried-and-true platoon pattern offers built-in dramatic opportunities as each player has her big revelatory scene and bonding moments with one or more colleagues. Author Rohina Malik utilizes the structure well, and wisely creates some effective humorous scenes to balance a generally-serious work. She references Islam's mystical streak, too, with two angels on stage and even a mystically romantic moment in the midst of war.
Still, distributing an 85-minute running time among five women means the work must be pithy and often sketchy. Its focus must be on the women and not on precepts of Islam. To complete the Hajj, each woman must confront the "devils" that impede her progress in faith, thereby providing the grist for the play's mill. The issues are heartfelt, some are horrible, but they are humanity's issues and not strictly those of Muslim women. Audience members seeking to broaden their understanding of Islamas we all truly should in this day/agewill not find The Mecca Tales especially helpful, although they will find the play compassionate ( "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate" is a common Islamic prayer verse ) and, perhaps, moving.
The women are Bina ( Anita Chandwaney ), wealthy but unhappy Pakistani-American wife of a neurosurgeon; Malika ( Celeste M. Cooper ), a medical student from the U.S. South; Alma ( Stephanie Diaz ), a convert to Islam who's infant daughter has a birth defect; Maya ( Susaan Jamshidi ), refugee from a war-torn Mideast nation where her new husband was killed; and Grace ( Morgan McCabe ), an Islamic convert now on her 10th Hajj as a tour-group leader, whose son is buried in Mecca. The lone man ( Derek Garza ) appealingly plays a variety of supporting rolls.
There are neither wasted words nor wasted movements as staged with economy and vigor by Rachel Edwards Harvith on Regina Garcia's abstract scenic design referencing the Ka'ba. Live oud music discreetly massages the play along, composed and played by Coren Warden. [Editor's note: An oud is an instrument used in Middle Eastern music.]