The plot of “Urge for Going” is typical of the gotta-get-out-of-here play: A brainy girl, eager to leave home and make her mark on the world, is simultaneously encouraged and held back by her overbearing father and contentious family. But Mona Mansour has set this domestic drama, mounted with all due professionalism by the Public LAB, in a Palestine refugee camp in southern Lebanon — and that makes all the difference in the world.
The most arresting character in this family of Palestinian intellectuals is Jul (Omid Abtahi), a 19-year-old so smart he was on his way to medical school until his brains were scrambled in a stupid encounter with a Lebanese Army soldier. In his sit-up-and-take-notice New York stage debut, Abtahi makes Jul entirely sympathetic as he alternately struggles with his wandering wits and provides glimpses of the clever boy he once was.
This dual perspective is achieved through direct audience address, a reliable, if conventional device handled well enough here by helmer Hal Brooks, an associate a.d. of Ojai Playwrights Conference, which developed the property.
Riveting character that he is, damaged Jul is not the protagonist of Mansour’s more traditionally conceived play (although that offbeat notion worked superbly in “Wings” and “The Other Place”). That privilege falls to the more common figure of 17-year-old Jamila, radiant with youth and promise in Tala Ashe’s glowing perf, who has taken Jul’s place as the next generation of scholars in this intellectual family.
Jamila is both excited and terrified by an intensely competitive upcoming exam that will, in effect, determine the rest of her life. Desperate to be that one-in-a-hundred Palestinian kid who will escape the refugee camp and go on to university, she practically bounces off the walls of the wretched home she shares with her father, mother, brother and uncles.
Since there’s not much suspense about the outcome of the exam, the plot hangs on whether or not Jamila will get the support and encouragement she needs from her father, Adham (played with appropriate sternness by Ramsey Faragallah). A literary scholar who once traveled to London to give a lecture on Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” with its searing sentiments about returning to a beloved homeland after a long absence, Adham is so conflicted about watching his daughter take advantage of the same opportunity that he could not that he comes close to sabotaging her only chance to escape.
Although scribe writes in a fluid, even lyrical style, she and her director are only partly successful at conveying the flagging aspirations, the wavering fortitude, the fundamental diminishment of human beings who have been displaced from their native land and forced to live on the margins of civilization.
In Mansour’s playbook, Adham and his extended family are beaten down but not defeated. While Jason Simms’ scenic design of their hovel is plenty articulate on beaten-down, it’s visually mum on the hopeful spirit that keeps this family going.
What’s left of that spirit — the family’s love of boistrous arguments on everything from politics to “Baywatch” — is well-entrusted to Jamila’s strong-minded mother (Jacqueline Antaramian) and her scrappy uncles (Demosthenes Chrysan and Ted Sod). But helmer Brooks takes his mission a bit too literally, and all that bombastic and supposedly comic yelling and shouting cruelly takes one more bite out of a family that has already been chewed almost to death.