The repression faced by women in fundamentalist Islamic countries is certainly a topical subject for a play. Although young American playwright Karen Hartman tackles it in unflinching fashion in “Gum,” receiving its world premiere at Baltimore’s Center Stage, her script suffers from stilted dialogue and a static nature. “Gum” only clocks in at an intermissionless 85 minutes, but it seems to take a lot longer to chew its feminist themes.
Harman was inspired to write her play after reading a newspaper story concerning Egyptian rumors about imported chewing gum allegedly laced with aphrodisiacs. “Gum” is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that has banned the substance. The play’s young adult sisters, Lina (Millie Chow) and Rahmi (Miriam A. Laube), are tempted to try this juiciest of forbidden fruits.
Both actors bring a spirited give-and-take to the sisters’ intimate conversations, but are consistently undone by dialogue that’s a weird mix of formality and slang. Perhaps this linguistic blend is meant to reflect the friction between traditional and modern manners.
It doesn’t play that way, however. Instead it seems as if Hartman hasn’t quite been able to come up with the “sound” of a foreign culture. She also continues chewing images long after they’ve been established, as in the extended references to gum. These problems are compounded by director Tim Vasen, whose pacing tends to be ponderous.
The play receives a much-needed boost when the older of the two sisters, Rahmi, reacts to the marriage that has been arranged for her by their (offstage) father. Rahmi’s fiance, Inayat (Joseph Kamal), is a business-suited perfume dealer. When he asks her, “Will you marry me?,” she replies with resignation: “It seems I will.” Also reinforcing the social order is the young women’s aunt (Dale Soules), who has raised them since their mother died; Soules brings feisty charm to her role.
As Rahmi approaches her wedding day, the play also accelerates a bit. Within the privacy of their wealthy home, Rahmi and Lina have blunt discussions about Rahmi’s sexual initiation by two young men in a car, female genital mutilation and other touchy matters. Questions raised about Rahmi’s purity inevitably will lead to a tragic ending for her within this uptight society. The play moves toward a sad finale in a plausible if predictable way.
Helping focus our attention on the sexual politics is that all the talky action takes place on a spare set by Myung Hee Cho emulating a domestic courtyard. The hanging lanterns, low furniture and reflecting pool are unobtrusive, but a looming wall at the rear is too obvious a symbol of imprisonment.
Further immersing us in the culture are the flowing, face-concealing red robes designed for the sisters by Anita Yavich; a convincing evocation of Islamic musical style by composer Kim D. Sherman; and mood-establishing sound by Sten Severson and lighting by Matthew Frey. Alas, their subtle touches aren’t enough to save a heavy script.