Last weekend, the East Coast Artists presented the Western hemisphere premiere of Manjula Padmanabham’s award-winning play, “Harvest,”directed by Swarthmore theater studies professor Erin Mee. A dark, chilling fantasy that’s a bit too close to reality, the play dissected the price of human dignity and the trials of poverty in a world of globalization.
The premise at first seemed simple. The setting is the apartment of a poor family in Bombay. Om (played by Rizwan Manji), trying to better provide for his wife Jaya (Deepti Gupta) and his demanding mother (MiaKatigbak), takes a mysterious new job. Gradually, the requirements and nature of this assignment become terrifyingly clear. Om has been hired by a mysterious corporation to be an organ donor for a wealthy American woman (Marissa Copeland, in what initially seems a cruel caricature,appearing only on video). Though his family now lives in luxury,what part of him will be demanded? And who will get it, really?
The play mines these symbolically fraught grounds thoroughly. As the family’s life becomes more comfortable, their relationships become more strained than they ever were in their poverty, and eventually the whole family is at risk of losing not only body parts but their souls and identities as well. The corporation, personified as three anonymous, masked guards dressed all in white, gradually takes over every aspect of their lives.
It is rich material, and won the 1997 Onassis Prize for Theatre. And the production communicated much of it well, particularly the lead actors (also including Manu Narayan as Om’s wayward brother, Jeetu, who becomes vitally important in Act II). Some aspects of the production design were outstanding, such as the projected backdrop, which sometimes displayed busy streets behind the family’s room added greatly needed atmosphere, though the accompanying sound effects made some dialogue hard to hear and it occasionally denigrated into something resembling a screen-saver.
This, and the creepy music by Nick Niles and Samrat Chakrabarti, may have been more effective had the set design been more suitable. The freshly pained sky-blue walls did little to evoke the family’s poverty, and gave a nice combination of colors but no aesthetic contrast with the sleek white appliances provided by Om’s employer. The pace of the production was quick, though it sometimes felt slightly under-rehearsed and under-polished, and the ending didn’t quite have the emotional weight that the text demanded.
The playwright, Mee, and East Coast Artists artistic director Richard Schechner led a discussion and answered questions after the performance. On Friday night, the difference between the play’s reception in India and here was discussed. “The reaction in India is always ‘Would Indians speak like this?'” Padmanabhan said.
Here, it was mostly about the topical concerns and moral dilemmas the play evoked. “It isn’t easy to suggest that any culture can be involved in this trade,” Padmanabhan said. “It’s not comfortable to believe in.”
Many in the audience remarked how disquieting they found the play to be, particularly its ending. Would she write a sequel? “This might be a very depressing story,” Padmanabhan said.