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Review: Roustabout Theatre’s ‘No Way Back’ a moving, child’s eye view of a brutal war

Jessica John stars in Roustabout Theatre Company's "No Way Back."
(Courtesy of Daren Scott)

World premiere play inspired by San Diego author’s real-life escape during the Iranian Revolution

To help process the trauma she endured as a child during the Iranian Revolution, San Diego therapist Mahshid Fashandi Hager started writing about her experiences. Those memories have come to life on film this month in the world premiere of her autobiographical stage play “No Way Back” with The Roustabouts Theatre Co.

Because local theaters are closed due to COVID-19, Roustabouts filmed the play for streaming. As a critic, I wish I could have seen it onstage. Filmmaker Michael Brueggemeyer did a fine job capturing the moving and magnetic performance by Jessica John and Fran Gercke’s tension-filled direction. But I would’ve liked to have heard the gunfire sound effects bursting around me and to have seen John’s quicksilver transformations as she plays multiple characters in Fashandi Hager’s family.

The one-hour play begins in 1976, when Fashandi was 5 years old. The script is told from that youthful perspective, and it has a child’s wide-eyed innocent view of the world. The political turmoil around the young girl is far less important to her than a new baby doll, her grandmother’s vegetable garden and her large and loving extended family who all live together in a large Tehran home. Two years later, the Shah of Iran is deposed and his government is replaced by an Islamic republic, whose roving soldiers go door to door indiscriminately shooting anyone they associate with the former regime.

The family gathers a few belongings and flees for the border, facing numerous obstacles along the way, including soldiers, robbers, starvation, exhaustion and cold before they find safety in Turkey.

The play moves swiftly, and it’s engrossing. But structurally it could use some reworking. Since we know this is the playwright’s own story and she survived her escape, the script’s chronological style of storytelling doesn’t create much mystery. The most traumatic things the young Fashandi Hager witnessed occur in the first half of the play, and nothing she endures after that rises to the same level of intensity.

Perhaps flashbacks, from the safety of the refugee camp, that could lead up to the most scarring memories would be more compelling and also more illuminating. Or perhaps the narrator character could be the mature Fashandi Hager — who now counsels trauma survivors — and her adult character could offer a different perspective on how those experiences as a young girl shaped her future life.

The play features scenery by Tony Cucuzzella, costumes by Jessica John, lighting by Joel Britt and sound by Matt Lescault-Wood.

“No Way Back”

Streaming: On demand through Dec. 13

Tickets: $25

Phone: (619) 568-5800

Online: theroustabouts.org

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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