Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Clash of Culture: “Free Outgoing” at East West Players

Anna Khaja as the desperate mother so central to "Free Outgoing" and its examination of media and cultural norms in modern India

Anna Khaja as the desperate mother so central to “Free Outgoing” and its examination of media and cultural norms in modern India

What happens when traditional values and rigid social norms come face to face with teenaged curiosity and social media? That is the essential question at the root of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s “Free Outgoing,” now onstage East West Players as part of their 51st anniversary celebration. Set in the state of Chennai, India, a teenaged girl, a promising student and the apple of her widowed mother’s eye, faces explosive reaction when a video of her sexual encounter with a boy at her school goes viral. With a mother on an impossible quest for damage control, a brother furious at the consequences for his own future, and a community rushing to judgement, the implications of gender bias and rigid societal norms come front and center.

Such a play – which is loosely based on an actual incident – could easily become preachy or pedantic, but Chandrasekhar has chosen a fascinating window on the situation. As a former journalist, she comes from the perspective of how someone like this loving mother reached the eventual stage of abject desperation which became public knowledge. What could have brought someone to that place? By peeling back layer after layer of maternal reaction, one reaches the true meat of the tale. The girl is focal to the story, and yet she is never seen. Instead it is the collateral damage we watch, as the mother, brother, and the mother’s occasionally supportive male colleague end up in an increasingly insular, and increasingly desperate space.

Anna Khaja is Malini, the proud mother, quick to show off the many academic awards her girl has won. As she processes the news of her daughter’s downfall, and the difference in severity of public reaction to the girl’s behavior over the boy involved, she goes through all of the stages of grief, from anger and denial through acceptance and even responsibility. It’s a strong and intelligent performance, often underplayed to significant effect.

As her fellow prisoner in this judgmental situation, Kapil Talwalkar gives the girl’s brother Sharan at once the quick temper of youth and a personal desperation, then gradually mellows this into a balance of previously unavailable connection to his mother and fierce protectiveness of his victimized sister. The warmth which begins to envelop these two central characters – mother and son – is also an important note of progress and understanding so different from the crowds which form outside their door.

Dileep Rao brings a moment of clarity as the father of the boy the girl was with, radiating a subtle but constant sense of gender privilege. Anil Kumar creates, in the awkward but sympathetic colleague, both a sense of earnest concern and a little edge of creepiness which powers later segments of the play. In a sterling bit of the actor’s art, Kavi Ladnier plays three extremely distinct characters who define the stages of Malini’s family’s degradation, so different from each other that it seems startling that a single actor could have created them all. In this she is aided by Rachel Myers’ satisfyingly apt costumes.

Still, this is Khaja’s play. Under the carefully paced direction of EWP’s artistic director Snehal Desai, this mother’s internal wrestle with culture, ethics, love and pain speaks volumes about powerlessness in the face of disaster. And, of course, the disaster itself speaks to the powerlessness of women in general, in a society where a woman’s reputation is everything, and is still couched in terms which allow little in the way of sexual expression or self-determination.

“Free Outgoing” offers, in a way, a reversal on the theme of “Death of a Salesman,” where a grown man’s actions undo his family and his life. Here a grown woman is undone by the guileless behavior of two people barely out of childhood, and watches all of life fall away due to externalities over which she has absolutely no control. As such it is a fascinating and empathetic character study, and a condemnation of any society which would impose such a severe and destructive norm, particularly in such an uneven circumstance.

What: “Free Outgoing” When: Through March 12, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $35 – $50, with student, senior and group discounts available Info: (213) 625-7000 or http://www.eastwestplayers.org

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