By focusing on the extended family that gives “Nine Armenians” its title, Leslie Ayvazian sets out to document the legacy of grief, suffering and community inherited by the modern-day American descendants of that persecuted land. At her best when detailing the generational differences and bonds of a suburban clan whose young are as typically American as they are Armenian, the playwright too often lapses into clunky exposition and speechifying when she turns her attention to history’s sweep.
Still, “Nine Armenians” is a warm, likable work that benefits from a good cast and Ayvazian’s clear-headed insights into the dynamics of a close-knit family particularly the family’s women. If a complaint can be lodged against Ayvazian’s view of domesticity, it’s the rather schematic way in which she presents the men as loving but ineffectual, paralyzed by emotion.
It is the women of “Nine Armenians” who embody strength and a sense of heritage. Following the death of the family’s grandfather, young Ani (Sevanne Martin) announces that she will visit Armenia, still ravaged by the civil war of the early ’90s, to “witness.” Giving a eulogy for her immigrant grandfather that provides the audience with a brief history of the country, she says, “Again, Armenians are starving and no one knows.”
The humanitarian trip provides the play’s drama, and its conflict. Ani’s father, John (Michael Countryman), opposes the visit: “Our parents escaped and you want to ‘witness?’ ” Mother Armine (Linda Emond) is fearful but resigned, and indeed it’s this meek character’s transformation into something stronger that is the central development in “Nine Armenians.”
Rounding out the family are Non (Kathleen Chalfant), the doting grandmother who harbors the family’s past; John and Armine’s two youngest children, Raffi (Cameron Boyd) and Virginia (Ellen Muth), Rollerblading kids so typically American that Virginia does the Macarena while the older folks dance traditional Armenian steps; and Aunt Louise (Sophie Hayden) and Uncle Garo (Richard Council) , she a brash busybody with a plateful of food for every occasion, he a quiet type overwhelmed by events.
Despite their differences, the family members pull together to weather various storms, particularly during Ani’s extended stay in Armenia. Worried as Ani’s letters become increasingly short and ominous, the family is forced to confront itsfeelings about its heritage and its responsibility to its former homeland.
Ani returns, saddened as much by her own inability to effect change as by what she has observed (one of the play’s major flaws is that the ravages of present-day Armenia are never vividly brought to life). Before the play is finished, though, at least one family member will pick up where Ani left off.
Despite her fine touch in drawing how a family functions the long goodbyes after Sunday dinner delineate each character’s role in the group Ayvazian too often gives in to obvious symbolism (much is made of a bird feathering its nest) and character reactions that seem melodramatic. Director Lynne Meadow draws fine performances from the cast (including the children), though she can do little with writing lapses that occasionally reduce the family to a sociological case study.
Tech credits are fine, although Santo Loquasto’s set seems a bit cold, however attractive. Armenian music is provided by George Mgrdichian, an onstage presence playing a lute-like instrument called an oud: In “Nine Armenians,” tradition is never far from home.