Elyria by Deepa Purohit is a soap opera raised to a higher level, made fascinating by its South Asian characters and their juxtaposition with the homely setting of a small American mid-western town, the Elyria, Ohio of the title. It’s a place that doesn’t exactly scream melting pot.
The plot of the play at the Atlantic Theater Company is the stuff of melodramas: Lower class woman gives up her baby to the higher class woman who is married to the infant’s biological father, both winding up in the oddest possible place forcing them to confront their nemeses. (Shades of Stella Dallas!)
Purohit sets the ambiance immediately with folksy Indian circle dancers doing the garba and raas, playfully clicking wooden sticks (dandiya) as they skip and gambol about all to a rhythmic Indian score celebrating the festival, Navrati. Music composed by Neel Murgai while Parijat Desai is responsible for the simple choreography.
As this joyous festival subsides, elegant Dhatta (Gulshan Mia, haughty and cool) runs into the passionate Vasanta, a beauty parlor operator. As played by Nilanjana Bose, Vasanta’s emotions are always close to the surface. They banter darkly about matters that become clearer as Elyria progresses.
Purohit reveals the tempestuous relationship between the two women as well as their dreadfully unhappy marriages. Dhatta is married to the respected and well-to-do physician Charu (Bhavesh Patel, sturdy and cool) who constantly berates her. Their handsome son, Rohan (Mohit Gautam, strong yet sweet) is reluctantly being groomed for both medical school and an arranged marriage.
Vasanta’s husband is Shiv (Sanjit De Silva, energetic and macho) who is prone to money-losing pipe dreams, including opening a travel agency in New Jersey. It’s Vasanta who takes the brunt of his fantasies.
Rohan makes a friend at school, the frenetic Hassanali (Omar Shafiuzzaman, charismatic). Hassanali helps Rohan out of his funk caused by Charu’s constant admonishments. The two prove to be great friends and, perhaps, something more.
In several flashbacks, two young women, who also participate in the opening dance—Mahima Saigal and Avanthika Srinivasan—play Vasanta and Dhatta as young women at the time in their lives when their fates intertwined. The two are lovely dancers and charming actors.
There is also a mysterious Young Man (Sanskar Agarwal), tall and lithe, who wanders about observing the emotional takedowns of the characters.
Dhatta disdainfully avoids Vasanta until they are forced to confront each other. A decision both made twenty years ago is about to ruin the lives of the two very different women and their families. Rohan is at the center of these revelations.
What makes Elyria intriguing is how its American location affects the hidebound ritual social rules of its Southeast Asian characters. That all the characters emerged from an African diaspora that seemed to have little influence on their ingrained Indian culture only adds to the colorful rendition of an old-hat story.
The interactions are played out on Jason Ardizzone-West’s immersive set. The Linda Gross Theater has been transformed. The audience is on four sides of a raised platform where most of the action takes place. Around this platform walkways pass through the theater’s seats. On the outer borders of the set there are indications of rooms, parks and offices, all suggested by minimal props.
Sarita Fellows’ costumes perfectly catch the nuances of the characters, from Dhatta’s chic pants suits to Vasanta’s workaday beautician jacket.
Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting and projections are magical, including a dreamy snow effect. She amplifies Ardizzone-West’s set concept focusing the audience’s attention on each part as the characters travels from interior to exterior locations.
Elyria takes an oft-told tale and gives it an original spin.
Elyria (through March 19, 2023)
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-989-7996 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission