Out of the Balkans, Where the Past Isn’t Past

Out of the Balkans, Where the Past Isn’t Past; In Jovanka Bach’s “Name Day,” produced by the Immigrants’ Theater Project, the personal really is the political. First written in 1995, this absorbing family drama is receiving its New York premiere at the Barrow Group Theater. Ms. Bach doesn’t pontificate. She keeps her concerns specific and intimate, and it’s this immediacy that gives “Name Day” its particular power. Set in Southern California circa 1985, in the homey kitchen and living room of Kara Mitor (Mikel Sarah Lambert) and her husband, Velko (Bob Adrian), “Name Day” begins and ends with Kara pathetically clutching a set of baby clothes she made long ago for her infant son, Rado, who died during World War II. Between our first glimpse of Kara and our last, the true history of these musty relics will emerge – destroying the hard-earned peace of two Serbian families. The Mitors (short for Mitroviches) have a second son, Misho (or Mike), who surprises them one afternoon by announcing he is engaged to Lily. “Is she one of us?” his parents want to know. It turns out she is not only one of them, but also the granddaughter of Nina, Kara’s girlhood friend from Yugoslavia – and Velko’s former sweetheart. Despite her initial discomfort at this discovery, Kara decides to make the best of it, and give a dinner party to celebrate the engagement. She chooses the name day of both her dead son and Nina’s son to commemorate the occasion, promising Velko she will not delve too much into the past. But the past is not so easily buried. Before long the dead child’s ghost is as present as the other company at the party. Ultimately, the night unravels, with a revelation so devastating that even the Orthodox priest brought in to bless the name day cake refuses to offer forgiveness. Ms. Bach’s highly naturalistic dialogue is transparent, quickly drawing one into the drama’s vortex. Directed by Marcy Arlin, the cast delivers spot-on performances. Forcefully portrayed by Ms. Lambert, Kara is by turns admirably strong and pitiably vulnerable. Nina, played by the soap-opera veteran Laryssa Lauret, is relentlessly brittle, from her pill box hat to her matching pumps, the perfect foil to Kara. The pair of husbands, Paul Barry as honorable Stanko and Mr. Adrian as kindly Velko, are completely convincing as former Yugoslavian countrymen (and former rivals for Nina’s affection). And Misho and Lily, while evoking 20-somethings of an earlier era – the 60’s rather than the 80’s – are fine as the young couple whose engagement instigates this painful excavation of an unvanquished past. Despite the symmetry of the first and last moments, the coda, following the evening’s powerful denouement, isn’t quite credible. Other than that, Ms. Bach has written a cogent and moving play.

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