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'Persian Quarter' is worth staying for

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"THE PERSIAN QUARTER," Salt Lake Acting Company, through Feb. 27, 801-363-7522 or www.saltlakeactingcompany.org

Like the history surrounding Kathleen Cahill's "The Persian Quarter," there's nothing simple about its narrative.

There's no one theme to point at and yell, "There — that's what this play is about."

The story doesn't define obvious villains, and there's no line at the end where the viewers can nod to the person next to them and whisper, "See, that's what they were trying to say."

But through various themes and a vast timeline, an honest and intimate story unfolds. Historic events collapse around women who love their countries, and lasting effects shape their children. Poetic verse weaves through each scene, and larger political powers influence the story's outcome.

But in the end, the heart of "The Persian Quarter" is found in the sketches of complicated and powerful women.

It begins with Ann, who is tanning along the poolside of the American Embassy in Iran in 1979. We learn that Ann was a nun and that she's now an English teacher hoping to expose Iranian students to American poetry. There's more to Ann, but that's all she wants people to know.

We learn more after she's taken hostage during an Iranian uprising. Ann believes a woman can fight through anything. And while captivity wears on her, she's determined. That is, until she finds out from Shirin, a female revolutionist, that after 444 days locked in a room with nothing to do but read poetry and practice yoga, Ann has run out of time.

It's in this first real exchange that Cahill's script begins to shine. Shirin has her own strength and sincere values that cause Ann to consider her own convictions. But in what may be the final moments of her life, convictions are all Ann has left.

Act 2 considers another chance encounter between very different characters. Thirty years after the hostage crisis, the daughters of Ann and Shirin have an accidental encounter at Columbia University, during the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ann's daughter is nothing like her mother and rejects the beliefs her mother held to while in prison. Shirin's daughter sees her mother as a hero and considers herself a revolutionist.

To the credit of the Salt Lake Acting Company, this show absolutely belongs to its two stars. Nell Gwynn and Deena Marie Manzanares are so good in their respective roles that when they're on stage, either alone or together, any effort to suspend disbelief becomes unnecessary.

The show itself is well-staged and showcases compelling dialogue but suffers from a strangely uneven second act. Audience members are often jolted from the otherwise engaging production to scratch their heads through a Britney Spears number or glowing chalkboard.

Still, I don't believe anyone will walk away from "The Persian Quarter" disappointed with their experience. The complexity folds easily into a well-designed narrative, and the leading female performances are so good that a few unearned and unnecessary moments will be easily overlooked.

Sensitivity rating: mild language and immodesty