With vaccination rates rising and companies making public encouraging plans for reopening, it seems likely that live theater will return in some form this summer. Williamstown Theatre Festival, one of the country’s leading seasonal producers, hasn’t yet announced whether it will present an in-person season, but it continues to release audio productions through a partnership with Audible. The latest, Wish You Were Here, converts a planned world premiere into a streaming drama. Although intriguing in its current form, it’s hard not to wonder how Sanaz Toossi’s chronicle of female friendship against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath would have come across on stage.
Toossi captures the complexities and camaraderie at the heart of close relationships, exploring too how they evolve over time. The writing reflects how the rhythms of speech among longstanding friends can resemble a secret language. The five women at the heart of the story – mercurial Nazanin (Marjan Neshat), practical Zari (Nikki Massoud), strong-willed Shideh (Artemis Pebdani), sweet-natured Salme (Roxanna Hope Radja), and enigmatic Rana (Nazanin Nour) – swap sassy inside jokes about sex amid more serious talk of marriage and motherhood, with the realities of life after the 1979 uprising and the subsequent war with Iraq eventually folded in. The experiences these characters share together feel natural and often moving.
Some elements of the story end up lost in translation. Although director Gaye Taylor Upchurch keeps the dialogue moving at a steady clip and the action flows smoothly scene to scene, you can’t help but miss the degree to which physical intimacy defines personal interactions. This is especially true here, where almost every vignette tying the story together is built around some kind of action: painting nails, waxing one another’s legs, making sure a bride looks perfect on her wedding day. As an audience member, you want to experience the actions underscoring such moments; relegated to this medium, they’re simply echoes.
The actors do their best to overcome this deficit. Something not so easily surmounted is that the central strand of the plot often seems secondary. Over the course of the play’s fourteen years – spanning pre-revolutionary 1978 to 1992 – Nazanin longs for news of Rana, a Jew who fled the country. The matter comes up from time to time, often threaded into other conversations, but as the story progresses, it begins to feel like an afterthought. It’s not because you doubt Nazanin’s sincerity or conviction – if anything, Neshat’s deeply sympathetic performance makes it clearer than Toossi’s script. But since we can never fully appreciate Rana’s physical presence, her absence doesn’t hold the necessary weight, and their long-deferred reunion in the final scene lacks emotional payoff.
Nazanin is the most complex character, although her resolute decision to remain in Iran as her other friends eventually emigrate to America is underexplored. Still, Neshat supplies a crackling personality and line readings that hold multiple layers of meaning.
Across the board, the cast is superb. Pebdani, a veteran of television sitcoms, is a tantalizing prospect for future stage comedies. It’s also wonderful to encounter a work that centers a group of complex, individuated Middle Eastern women and doesn’t necessarily cater to the expectations of predominantly white audiences. As has been the case with each Williamstown Audible outing, the recording quality is top-notch; the sound design and original music, crafted by a team of talented artists and engineers, suits the story quite well.
That Wish You Were Here exists in this format is wonderful for its posterity, and hopefully it will introduce more theaters to this play and playwright. It still comes across as a work in progress. One encouraging hope for the return of in-person performances is that it will allow a play like this to fully develop and truly sing.