Balkan Memories

Balkan Memories;

Name Day, Jovanka Bach’s moving portrait of two Serbian families living in the United States, is a lesson in how not to deal with the past. The play focuses on two women, one of whom is incapable of living in the present because she is so obsessed with a moment in time that can never be changed, and another who has spent her entire life trying to forget that exact same moment. Mikel Sarah Lambert stars as Kara Mitor, a Serbian who, with her husband Velko, immigrated to California after World War II. The Mitors have one son, Michael, who at the beginning of the play announces to his parents that he is engaged. It turns out that his fiancée Lily is the granddaughter of Nina, Kara’s former best friend in Serbia. Once Kara discovers the connection, she insists upon holding an engagement party for the two families, and the date just so happens to be the name day for her infant son who died during the war. The audience learns early on that Kara holds Nina responsible for her son’s death how he died, though, is not revealed until the end of the play. Kara’s and Nina’s families are unaware of the shared trauma their two matriarchs experienced, but once the story is told, it inevitably becomes their pain, their family shame. Bach’s story is real and haunting, and her characters are sympathetic and fully drawn. It is a pity, then, that some of the actors are unable to match the standard she sets. As Kara, Lambert offers a bipolar performance her highs are too high and her lows are too low. She shudders, almost cartoonishly at times, when she remembers something painful from the war, and when she’s happy, she’s frighteningly ecstatic. She has no middle ground, no point of normalcy. Anastasia Barnes, who plays the recently engaged Lily, purposefully wrings her hands when she is acting “nervous” and delivers lines like “Home must have meant a lot to them” with a wistful, brows-furrowed look to the audience. Laryssa Lauret, as Nina, and Bob Adrian, who plays Velko, give fine performances, but only Paul Barry, who plays Nina’s husband Stanko, is truly stellar in his role. Barry covers the gamut of emotions he plays happy, understanding, disturbed, angry, broken, and even drunk perfectly. And, unlike his co-stars, he manages to stick to one accent throughout Act One and Act Two. Marcy Arlin’s direction is smart and well paced, and she sensibly uses all of Anka Lupes’s marvelous set to its full advantage. All of the action takes place in the Mitors’ home, but the scenery never gets old since Lupes created a split-level interior that allows for plenty of variation. Scenes take place in the upstairs bedroom behind a lighted screen, giving the audience the feeling that they are peeking in on a private conversation. At other times, an argument continues through the garden door, but the audience can only guess what is on the other side. But while this play has superb scenic design, it has the most egregious scene changes. In the time the audience was left sitting in the dark waiting for the doilies to be properly placed on the couch, the entire cast could have learned to speak Serbian. At one point, a stagehand even bounded on the set before the scene had finished. As Bach’s play illustrates, people have a different way of remembering the past. Sadly, the one thing this reviewer always will remember about Name Day is that incredibly awkward look on the stagehand’s face when he realized the lights had yet to dim.

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