A 30something NoCal couple hire a surrogate in faraway India to give birth to the child neither is biologically capable of conceiving in Lauren Yee’s imaginative, funny, at times overly cutesy, but ultimately quite moving Samsara, now getting a splendidly acted and directed West Coast Premiere at Anaheim Hills’ Chance Theater.
Jennifer Ruckman and James McHale star as Katie and Craig, whose desire for a wee one (or her desire to be more specific, since he is more than a bit conflicted about the whole business) may be just what the fertility doctor ordered to save a marriage on shaky ground.
Since Katie has no eggs to offer nor Craig any sperm to fertilize them, the couple opt for surrogacy, beginning with an online search for just the right pair of donors (and a video shoot that proves both amusing and revelatory).
As for the “microwave” in which to incubate their as yet imaginary child, the youngish marrieds eventually pick an unwed, 8000-mile-distant medical student named Suraiya (Anisha Adusumilli), India being one of the few countries offering relatively inexpensive surrogates for hire.
A bit under nine months later, with Suraiya about to give birth, Craig leaves Katie behind to fly off by his lonesome to pick up their soon-to-arrive baby, his wife’s crippling fear of flying keeping her stuck back in the States with nothing but a VHS tape of her late Canadian mother’s favorite French film to keep her company.
Well, not quite “just” the movie, for who should enter Katie’s fantasies but an accordion-playing Frenchman (Jason Paul Evans) de rêve, a symbol of both her marital frustrations and her repressed longings.
Meanwhile over in India, as Craig remains glued inside his hotel room, Indian traffic being so frightening that he can’t even cross the street to McDonald’s, Suraiya is doing some fantasizing of her own in the person of Amit (Ray Parikh), aka “Shithead,” an adult-sized “baby” who looks nothing at all like the blond, blue-eyed child she’s likely carrying in her uterus and who talks with all the precociousness of a five-year-old.
If this all sounds rather a bit bizarre, it is, and Yee’s brand of “magical realism” can prove rather a bit trying at times.
Fortunately, the talented young San Francisco native (and this year’s Chance Theater Playwright In Residence) knows how to make an audience both laugh and think, gifts that ultimately make Samsara a quite moving look at two women with real lives in crisis and fantasy lives in bloom.
Under Benjamin Kamine’s smart, incisive direction, Ruckman and McHale, the stars of last year’s Maple and Vine, are every bit as terrific as they’ve ever been, the Chance’s go-to stand-ins for Naomi Watts and Edward Norton getting to show off comedic chops their mostly dramatic roles to date have not afforded them.
Guest artist newbies Adusumilli, Parikh, and Evans match their Chance Resident Artist costars every step of the way. Adusumilli’s beautifully layered portrait of a young Indian woman finding herself in a position she neither could nor would ever have imagined, Parikh’s irresistibly precocious long-legged man-child, and Evans’ très délicieux mélange of Delon, Chevalier, Jourdan, and Belmondo could not be more winning, with Evans doubling to fine effect as Suraiya’s insufferable English OB/GYN.
Samsara debuts Chance Theater’s brand-spanking new Second Stage, where audiences can get the up-close-and-personal experience that made the Chance’s first decade in their original space such a memorably intimate ten years.
Scenic designer Bruce Goodrich’s minimalist set has been beautifully lit by lighting designer Jeff Brewer. Carole Zelinger’s costumes are a terrific mix of contemporary casual, both American and Indian, with special snaps for Amit’s schoolboy cute and Evans’ Frenchman élégance. Sound designers Jeff Polunas and Ryan Brodkin back the production with just the right music and effects.
Desiree York is assistant director. Robin Shorter is stage manager.
Though Samsara’s surreal-er flights of fancy did occasionally set my mind to drifting, Yee’s comedy ended up winning me over with its undeniable charm and unexpected depth. Much of this was due to the production’s couldn’t-be-better cast, but even less perfectly performed, Samsara would still be introducing SoCal audiences to a playwright to watch. I for one am eager to see what’s next up Lauren Yee’s sleeve.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
May 9, 2015
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio