Woolly Mammoth and PlayCo’s This Is Who I Am is the best play created during the pandemic that is not specifically about the pandemic. Presented in association with American Repertory Theater, Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Amir Nizar Zuabi’s poignant, exquisitely told seventy-minute Zoom work is a treat for all five senses while exploring such issues as love, loss, loneliness, grief, memory, and distance, so much a part of our life amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
Zuabi, who was raised in Palestine, was the associate director of Young Vic London for eight years, and is now artistic director of the ShiberHur theater in Haifa, set his 2013 site-specific show, Oh My Sweet Land, in kitchens in real apartments, where small audiences would cram in and watch a woman cook while telling stories about Syrian refugees; everyone was handed a delicacy she made on the way out. This Is Who I Am also takes place in real kitchens, but in this case belonging to two actors portraying an estranged father and son reconnecting over Zoom; you might not get a bite of the spinach-and-onion-stuffed dumpling-like peasant dish known as fteer that they make together, but you will feel as if you can touch, smell, and taste it, in addition to watching and listening to their intimate, heart-tugging conversation. (However, you will get the recipe so you can prepare it yourself in your own kitchen.)
The father (Ramsey Faragallah) is Zooming in from his home in Ramallah, while the son (Yousof Sultani) is in New York, having left the West Bank city years ago to become an art curator, a job his manly, hardworking father fails to understand. As they go step-by-step through the recipe of their late wife/mother’s favorite dish, they talk about the past and delve deep into their relationship, which changed drastically during her prolonged illness. “She used to make such incredible food. Why this, why fteer?” the son asks. “It was the first thing she prepared for me,” the father replies. “She said to me, ‘This is who I am. I am a pocketful of surprises.’”
As they add the ingredients, the differences between them are revealed not only through the dialogue but by how they are making the dish. While the son uses modern utensils and measures everything precisely, the father uses his fingers and judgment with the salt and the sumac, the onions and the yeast. “You were always a horrible cook,” the son says, as if referring to his role as a father as well. The father declares that his lentil soup is to die for, which leads the son to quip, “Death is definitely one of the consequences that can occur as a result of your lentil soup.”
Making fteer together leads them to “fill the gaps” of their lives. When they brush on the olive oil, they remember the olive trees of Ramallah; where the father waxes poetic about the beauty, culture, tradition, and sustenance they represent, the son recalls that the “trees are drenched in blood. They live in a land that had so many people claim it, so many people die for it. You walk around those trees and you feel the reverence of history; I walk around those trees and I hear the shouts of slaughtered men that had to sacrifice themselves to keep it.” When the son insists that water has to be lukewarm, considering it a “safe” temperature, the father interprets that as his son yet again taking the easy way out, not going for the extremes of hot and cold. As they reach the end of the preparation and get ready to place the food in the oven, their topics grow ever-more-serious, with accusations and condemnations being squeezed out like the juice of a lemon, tart and bitter.
Turkish immigrant Evren Odcikin (When My Mama Was a Hittite, Nine Parts of Desire), the associate artistic director at OSF, directs the show with a natural, realistic grace, keeping the actors onscreen the entire time, next to each other in static boxes without camera movement, close-ups, or cuts; we’ve all been part of so many Zoom calls with friends and family and watched a multitude of live, online cooking programs that it’s easy to forget that this is a play and that the two men are fictional constructions. Instead, you’re likely to feel that you’re eavesdropping on an intensely private moment between two complex individuals as they intimately discuss trust, fear, memory, choice, disappointment, and what makes a person a hero.
LA-born actor, writer, and teacher Faragallah (The Profane, Homeland) and Northern Virginia native Sultani (Heartland, Photograph 51) are marvelous as father and son, fully embodying their characters just as the dish they are making brings their wife/mother to life. Faragallah portrays the strong and stalwart father with a tender vulnerability that is deeply affecting, while the handsome, hirsute Sultani is sensitive and authentic as the seemingly intractable, unyielding son who is harboring a critical secret. Just follow the movement of their eyes; they might not be in the same room, but their innate attachment is palpable.
In October, Woolly Mammoth’s Woolly on Demand season kicked off with Telephonic Literary Union’s fun Human Resources, which took place completely over the phone as a “choose your own adventure” series of prerecorded messages. This Is Who I Am comes to us live, in real time, via cameras in the actors’ homes in an honest, intrinsically human story that captures who we are and what we are facing without ever mentioning the pandemic we are suffering through; it’s a timeless story whose time is now, for people everywhere.
(This Is Who I Am continues through January 3; tickets are $15.99 for one and $30.99 for a household. On January 2, you can take part in a postshow community meetup hosted by A.R.T. with the Boston Palestine Film Festival by registering here. It’s also worth checking out the archived December 20 virtual panel discussion “Story as Resistance: The Joys, the Heartbreak, and the Food.”)