A girl-next-door Bostonian turns Islamic terrorist in Wendy Graf’s powerful, thought-provoking solo-play All-American Girl, now getting its World Premiere production at Hollywood’s Lounge Theatre under Anita Khanzadian’s astute, visually imaginative direction.
Annika Marks (alternating with Jeanne Syquia) stars as Watertown born-and-bred Katie, whom we first meet in Islamic garb as she prepares, step-by-step, for what ends up an unsuccessful attempt to detonate a bomb in New York’s Lafayette Square. (To Katie’s credit, she and her Muslim-Indian husband Iqbal have made sure to alert the police to clear the area before the bomb’s timer-set explosion is to occur.)
Graf’s play then flashes us back to Katie’s childhood, adolescence, and university days, the better to help us understand what might transform a girl any one of us could have gone to school with into a monster.
A greater sense of self—and self-worth—might have set Katie on a different path than the one she eventually chooses, or had she fallen in love with someone other than the sexy, caramel macchiato-skinned Indian she marries.
Unfortunately for Katie, Iqbal turns out to be hardly the husband of her dreams—the frequently inebriated Indian has a propensity to lash out physically against his American bride—which may explain why Katie follows suit when Iqbal cleans up his act by embracing Islam.
A trip to India makes Katie painfully aware of the violence perpetrated against Muslims by the country’s Hindu majority, and when one particularly horrendous attack takes the lives of innocent children, Katie finds herself obsessed with anti-Islamic terrorism, including what she sees as America’s complicity in many of these acts.
Some may see Graf’s attempt at understanding as a justification of terrorism (which it is not), and I’m guessing that Fox TV viewers won’t take kindly to what they’d likely term Katie’s “anti-American” attitude and acts.
Still, with Marks (who made a big-screen splash in 2012’s The Sessions and recurs on TV’s The Fosters) giving Katie layers of depth and complexity (in addition to creating multiple supporting characters and turning emotions on a dime when needed), Graf’s play is in such empathetic hands that though we may not excuse its protagonist’s behavior, we understand why Katie does what she does. (That Marks has mastered ninety nonstop minutes of dialog is in itself nothing short of astounding.)
All-American Girl is not without its fixable flaws. The occasional flashbacks-within-flashbacks work less well for me than had Graf opted for simple chronological following the play’s opening scene. The effect of 9/11 on a 12-year-old Boston girl (who could hardly be unaware of its happening only a couple hundred miles away) leaves unanswered questions. And for this reviewer at least, the play’s ironic ending seems a less challenging way out than Graf might have chosen.
Quibbles aside, an all-around superb design team help make All-American Girl the winner it is, from production designer Joel Daavid’s use of revolving black panels (and Katie’s use of chalk to write and draw on them), to Carol Doehring’s stunning lighting design, to Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s dramatic sound design and atmospheric original music, to Eric Babb’s well-chosen props, to the way costume designer Amanda Antunes lets us see Katie’s transformation though the clothes she wears.
All-American Girl is produced for InterACT Theatre Company by Alan Naggar. Michele Rose Naggar is assistant director. Matt Fowler is production stage manager. Marine Walton is scenic painter. Anna Schulze composed the original song “Poison Ivy.”
Just as playwright Graf took us into the head of a young girl seduced into the world of Orthodox Judaism in Behind The Gates and into the soul of a Guyanese lesbian in No Word In Guyanese For Me, her latest play does the same for its All-American heroine.
Katie’s actions may be reprehensible, but in Graf’s and Marks’ hands, they are at the very least comprehensible, and that is what All-American Girl is all about.
Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood.
July 8, 2015
Photos: Rick Friesen