'Wish You Were Here' review — a compassionate look at Iranian culture

Juan Michael Porter II
Juan Michael Porter II

In Sanaz Toosi's Wish You Were Here, five Iranian women grow together and apart from each over the course of 13 years. Their conflicts transcend the simple mundanites that comprise modern friendships. Though those issues (petty rivalries and jealousy) also appear, they play second fiddle to the compromises and personality changes that each woman is forced to undergo in the face of violent revolution.

The year is 1978, and five women have joined to celebrate Salme's (Roxanna Hope Radja) wedding. Though they are all boldly vulgar and silly ― and given to making jokes about their vaginas ― it is clear that none of them have ever had sex. Shideh (Artemis Pebdani) in particular enjoys taking digs at her companions over their supposed ignorance, even as she is the biggest prude of all. Zari (Nikki Massoud), is her polar opposite ― the kid sister playing at adulthood, whose best efforts inadvertently reveal her precious naviete, while Salma helps to maintain peace with self-assured kindness and appreciation for everyone around her.

Though most of the group are Muslim, at this point it was still safe for Iranian Jews to live in the country. Case in point: Rana (Nazanin Nour), who is Jewish, along with her best friend Nazanin (Marjan Neshat), the clear leader of this smart, poised, ready-to-conquer-the-world pack. Unfortunately, in the next scene, Rana has disappeared, and though it is clear they all miss her to certain degrees, only Salme bothers to look for her. 

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch elegantly indicates this loss of innocence with the group of women coming together to lift Salme's dress off her from above. Suddenly, the play has moved forward into the Iranian Revolution ― during which shows of religious piety became the rule of land, complete with women being barred from attending university. Uncowed, Shideh leaves to study in the United States, while Salme becomes more religious than ever. Happily, her religious devotion does not distract her from her compassion and love for her friends. 

Sadly, in another shift forward in time, it emerges that Salme has died, leaving Nazanin and Zari, who do not care for each other, as the last of the group.

Zari is married now and following a custom to forgo bathing more than a few times a week. Nazanin is clearly disgusted, though forced to compromise with her new reality when Zari saves her from embarrassment. In time, Nazanin breaks her own vow not to marry and accepts Zari as her new best friend, though even this taming of her spirit proves small comfort when she faces additional loss. The play concludes with a visit from ghosts of Nazanin's past and the realization that she has lost everything she thought she wanted. 

Much like Toosi's English, which premiered earlier this year at Atlantic Theater Company, Wish You Were Here is another gorgeous and humanizing look at Iranian culture with a deep regard for what its citizens have been asked to sacrifice. Such compromise seems unthinkable to Americans, even as we are in the middle of a violent political upheaval of our own. In reflecting on each character's evolution, one realizes how easy it is for an unthinkable reality to become normalized ― especially when one loses access to their dreams and loved ones. 

The production is simple and perfect, from Arnulfo Maldonado's economic set to Sarah Laux's authentic costumes and Upchurch's deft hand at arranging the bodies in beautiful tableaux. However, the cast's acting was more understated than necessary. At times I wished to hear greater characterization in the vocal performances, particularly in the opening scene, if only to set a high point for when these women felt truly free. 

Despite my personal feelings, many of my theatre colleagues and people from Iran who have seen the play have said they found the acting entirely true to life and perfect. I advise everyone to see the play to decide for themselves and reflect on what it might mean to transform into someone you no longer recognize.

Wish You Were Here is at Playwrights Horizons through May 29. Get Wish You Were Here tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Marjan Neshat, Roxanna Hope Radja, Nazanin Nour, Artemis Pebdani, and Nikki Massoud in Wish You Were Here. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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