Rachel May and her colleagues at Synchronicity Theatre didn’t plan it schedule-wise, but it would be hard to imagine a more topical play than their just-opened drama Strait of Gibraltar. With the new administration’s executive order on immigrants and refugees, as well as the bomb threats leveled against Jewish institutions across the country, this production — running through April 23 at the company’s home in the Peachtree Pointe complex — proves to be intense and thought-provoking. A world premiere by Andrea Lepcio, it could use some narrative tweaks here and there, but it nonetheless has an undeniable power.
What starts off as a romance becomes something of a thriller. Miriam (Maggie Birgel) is a young woman who meets Sameer (Benjamin Dewitt Sims) at a party. They hit it off and fall for each other pretty quickly. As if dating isn’t hard enough, though, they have to deal with the repercussions of her being Jewish and him being Muslim, a Moroccan living in New York illegally, as well as their financial differences.
She works for a bank, is well off and lives in a West Village apartment; he works at a deli and shares an apartment with two others in Queens. Eventually Miriam finds out that Sameer is undocumented, and she is happy to oblige when he asks a favor. She is in love, and it all sounds idealistic — but their plan backfires in a big way. Without giving away too much, the play’s first act ends with an arrest at the airport, with charges including terrorism.
Strait of Gibraltar is a smart play, and it’s easy to see why May — who directs — would be attracted to it for her theater company. It’s a work that deals with a lot of issues and themes, among them prejudice and racism, and eerily looks at the Patriot Act’s influence on individual rights. It does so with some ambiguity and tension, too. Miriam wonders if she was too trusting and gullible, and if the man of her dreams might be a terrorist.
Having said that, the two acts here are a little unbalanced. The first charts the relationship between Miriam and Sameer, and it’s one that unfolds at its own often frustrating pace. The play immerses itself in Miriam’s world and home, and wisely lets us see her barriers coming down. On the contrary, we never see much of Sameer’s outside world. May can only do so much with some of the meandering, getting-comfortable-with-each-other moments between the two characters. Lepcio’s talky work doesn’t have much in the way of variety, at least until some other characters pop up.
Act II, however, is much more solid, with a lot at stake. A sequence where dual interrogations take place on opposite sides of the stage is especially well orchestrated. It also subtly shows the way people of different races can be treated. One character is roughed up and another treated more delicately, never even touched. What transpires after has its share of surprises.
It’s a small ensemble, but both lead performers — neither of whom onstage I’ve seen before — are quite believable, and the central pair have convincing support from the likes of Kathleen Wattis (as Miriam’s mother), Suehyla El Attar and Brian Ashton Smith, both of whom play various roles.
Strait of Gibraltar is a play that could easily get lost in the shadow of a slew of other high-profile Atlanta offerings. (I saw it opening night, when — strike two — it seemed like a lot of the city was reluctant to hit the streets post I-85 collapse.) It’s a low-key production that isn’t as theatrical as it could be, one that takes too long to get going. Its thick ideas, however, will hopefully all come together in a tighter, more cohesive manner in a future mounting. Yet even with its flaws, Strait of Gibraltar is a scrappy little play that certainly makes for spirited post-performance conversations.