Play Tackles Changing Attitude Toward Widowhood, Tongue Firmly in Cheek

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— CHICAGO, IL.
The Midwest premiere of Rasaka Theater’s latest production, “A Widow of No Importance,” (an allusion to Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance”) was held Jan. 17 at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.

A romantic comedy by playwright Shane Shankari sets the stage for an unconventional love story between a widow (Deepa) played by Alka Nayyar, and her son’s divorced childhood friend (Vinod) played by Anand Bhatt. What starts off as casual meetings over home-cooked biryani develops into a deeply passionate and intensely fulfilling relationship defying the barriers of age, family and society in present day Mumbai.

The play opens with an emotionally vacant and desolate widow beseeching the Almighty that her only purpose in life now is to see her very independent and modern daughter (Tara) played by Vashista Vafadari get married. Living an isolated life, without her son who has left to work abroad, Deepa’s days are spent wearing white clothes, cooking meals and praying, with the only indulgence in her life being romance novels which she reads in secret.

Her rebellious and strong minded daughter Tara sees herself as a modern woman who wants to pursue her masters in creative writing and cringes at the idea of an arranged marriage. She wants to “fall in love” and manages to scare away potential suitors by her rude behavior and adds to her mother’s fears about her future.

Vinod, the recently divorced childhood friend of her son, whose ex-wife has decided to remarry just six months after their divorce, and is dealing with emotional emptiness, not only develops a crush on Deepa and starts fulfilling her emotional and physical needs but decides that he is in love with her and wants to marry her.

The relationship between Deepa and her children are strained once they come to know about her affair with Vinod and she is confronted with the choice of either being a “mother” or a “woman”.

Not surprisingly Alka Nayyar, a veteran of Chicago theater, delivers an authentic and seasoned performance. “ I think Deepa is a character a lot of people can relate to, when I dug deep I started to realize what the differences are between society and what is self-imposed by Deepa in terms of her life as a widow, it is true that a lot of widows go through this and I think the play brings this forth every elegantly.”

What adds an element of lightness to the play is the comedic role of Lalitha, Deepa’s good friend, played by Priya Mohanthi who reminds us of that quintessential “auntie,” well intentioned but gossipy, who’s constantly worried about latest fashion trends and her looks. She seems to be the only one who brings the outside reality of life in Mumbai into Deepa’s isolated world inside her apartment.

Lavina Jadhwani, the Chicago-based director, is the glue that pulls together all the characters and creates a sense of cohesion to the play. Jadhwani worked on several plays for the desi theater company, including “Gruesome Injuries,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Kabulities” and “Yoni Ki Baat” and is currently in rehearsals for her next project “Julius Caesar” which will feature at the Brown Bag Theater Co.

“Lavina was great to work with because she really helped me to transform my character from a young boy to a lover; she taught me how to break down my role into two people and then added subtleties which helped me to create the transformation”, says young actor Anand Bhatt who plays the role of Vinod.

“I always start with the actor and text honoring what’s true to actor and playwright, and try to interrogate what that might be in between the lines; especially in comedy. Since we cater to both American Theater and South Asian audiences I always keep in mind how each will react and respond and it’s my goal to achieve this inclusivity,” Jahdwani says.

When asked about her experience as one of the only South Asian female directors on the American theater scene, Jahdwani says, “The game is starting to change and American Theater needs more female voices and voices of artists of color because most importantly you want to create authenticity, and the person who is facilitating that conversation must have a strong handle on that.”

“I found the play to be so funny and inspiring. Being from India where widowhood was once considered a curse, I’m glad this play highlights the growing change in perceptions in our modern society,” said a member of the audience.

“It is the literary talent of playwright Shane Shankari who broaches the topic of widowhood in such a delicate and humorous way and through his masterful writing he balances the narrative of this very dismal topic through a romantic comedy which is what inspired me to produce the play,” says Kamal Hans the artistic director and founder of the Rasaka Theater Co.

The play is running at the Victory Gardens Theater (Biograph) 2433 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago IL., from Jan. 11- Feb. 21. For tickets please visit www.rasakatheatre.com or www.victorygardens.org.