Many writers have examined tensions in the Middle East, a particularly thorny issue. Playwright Monica Raymond does so with a poetic eye in her new work, The Owl Girl. Taking the conflict to an absurdist extreme, she distills the historic schism down to two families — one Arab and one Israeli — and places them in the same dwelling. Both can reasonably claim ownership of the home. Zol and Leedya were raising their teenagers, Joze and Anja, in the house when they were all sent to a camp in the West Bank. Rav and Ora then purchased the property for their family, which includes daughter Stel and young son Capi.
Stel still feels the spirits of the other children in her room, where she chooses to keep two marks on the wall that indicate Joze and Anja’s heights at the time they were forced to leave. Meanwhile in the camp, Joze has also started to feel a draw, eventually convincing his father to give him the key to the old front door so he can visit one last time. He happens to choose a night when Stel is home alone and the two form an instant connection. Stel invites Joze to come back, but when he does, his parents and sister follow. Rav, Ora, and Capi return, and the eight decide to share the space as a cultural experiment.
Raymond employs a number of metaphors to make her points about battles ideological, cultural, and territorial. The most graphic of these symbols is the Owl Girl of the title. Anja stopped developing at the age of 13, literally stunted by losing her place in the world. Stuck in exile, she fell under the spell of her rage-filled grandmother. Since Anja hasn’t matured into a woman, she tries on a number of animal personas, settling on the owl. These birds represent power and destruction in her culture, but also possess vision and insight. Returned to her rightful station, she not only starts menstruating, but swoops about the house, eventually sprouting literal wings in order to gain a better vantage point.
Ms. Raymond has been developing this piece for 15 years, and some sections flow with the passion she obviously feels for her subject. Her understanding of the thin line that can exist between enemies is well articulated, at one point represented by a literal string running down the kitchen. Her use of magic helps her reveal emotions that can be difficult to articulate. But she defuses her message by adding too many layers. There are aggressive chess matches, a hellish hidden room, and a jar of mysterious ointment. Then in the middle of the second act, Raymond introduces a subplot involving the lust Rav feels for Anja. Eventually, like a child’s painting, the metaphors are so thick that they turn muddy.
The Owl Girl is presented by THML, a majority female-run theatre company that promotes stories by and about women. It is therefore unsurprising that the exchanges that have the most rhythm are the ones between the two mothers. They share a frustration with their sexists husbands and are both raising challenging younger children. Ora and Leedya bond as almost any two women will eventually do, finding common ground and poking a little fun at their differences. Director Bryan Raanan Kearney who plays Ora has good timing and provides some comic relief. The other relationships don’t work at least in part because many of the actors are miscast. One in particular is the wrong age and ethnicity and has not gained mastery over an unnecessary accent. The exception is Julian Alexander, who brings a delightful softness and sense of wonder to Joze.
Having received awards from the Castillo Theater, Peacewriting, Portland (Maine) Stage, and the Jewish Plays Project, The Owl Girl is a promising work that still needs to find a clear voice. It is playing through March 20 at The Center at West Park, upstairs in the Balcony Theater. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-owl-girl-tickets-53977563345.