The painful legacy of Armenia’s unhappy history and its effects on three generations of an Armenian-American family are the subject of Leslie Ayvazian’s “Nine Armenians,” the closing entry in the Mark Taper Forum’s 30th anniversary season. Some fine acting under Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson’s attentive hand brings a needed charge to a play that’s marked by flashes of moving, natural writing but has a less than dynamic structure. Generally, “Nine Armenians” comes off as an earnest, mildly comic mixture of domestic family drama and Armenian history primer.
At the end of a raucous, broadly comic opening scene establishing the general ethnicity and distinctive personalities of the clan — there’s much yelling, and even more talk of food — the sudden death of the family patriarch sets in motion the play’s darker strand.
The death of her grandfather, a minister and author of some 15 books on Armenian history, sends the politically inclined Ani, played with impressive natural force by Sarah Koskoff, on an odyssey of discovery to her Papa’s native home. She had long ignored his gentle imprecations to pay attention to the its grim past and increasingly troubled present, and now remorse inspires her to join an aid group bringing relief to the desperately poor country.
This doesn’t sit well with her father John (Tom Mardirosian), who rails at her at the airport for returning to a land his forebears barely escaped with their lives, while many relatives were killed in the horrific wholesale massacre of the Armenian population by the Turks in 1915.
The irony of conflicting generational perspectives is gently stressed throughout the play: While Ani’s parents, first-generation Americans, are content with a minor awareness of the foreign roots of their American identities, Ani — one more generation removed from the family’s Armenian past — fights hard to establish a deeper link with her grandfather’s homeland.
The play’s meandering focus moves between Ani in Armenia and the family’s own troubles at home, as Aunt Louise (played by the playwright), who trails a cloud of hypochondria and general ill will, spars with husband Garo (Apollo Dukakis) and brother John. A second death in the family and Ani’s mother Armine’s (Cheryl Giannini) increasing anguish over her daughter’s absence keep domestic matters on the boil until Ani’s belated return.
A young woman’s awakening to a sense of her place in history is a psychological process not easily dramatized, so the play’s chief dramatic arc is overshadowed by the somewhat haphazard ethnic soap opera antics at home.
The play only dimly illuminates what Ani goes through on her trip to Armenia; the grim desperation of a people on the verge of starvation is narrated in her letters, but never given any visceral reality — the only interaction with an Armenian we witness is her gift of an overcoat to a needy man she can’t even communicate with. So when she returns home a haunted woman, wailing “Suffering is my heritage – endless suffering” to her grandmother, she just seems neurotic and self-involved. (And anyway, isn’t suffering everyone else’s heritage, too?)
But in this, ultimately the play’s most moving scene, Ayvazian does manage to bring to life the struggle of coming to grips with the unspeakable cruelty of human history. Magda Harout, an actress of great warmth and effusive spirit, plays Ani’s grandmother, who gently teaches her granddaughter the sad, cathartic art of hand-wringing. It’s a wonderful, intimate theatrical moment that speaks a universal truth about our smallness in the face of history’s indifference.
The same truth is echoed in the giant scope of Ralph Funicello’s set, beautiful in its simplicity, which uses large blocks of weather-beaten colored wood to form an overarching proscenium, while Paulie Jenkins’ lighting is deftly used to accentuate the emotional tones of various scenes. George Mgrdichian’s music for the mandolin-like oud, played by the composer from the side of the stage, is an evocative touch, though to these ears a little oud goes a long way.
Among a cast that creates a vivid sense of true family feeling, Giannini contributes strong, subtle playing, while Mardirosian ably plays a man just containing his frustration at the conflicting needs of a large family, and Dukakis has touching, quiet moments in his smaller role.