There’s a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking piece of socio-political theatre running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace right now: Nightwood Theatre’s production of Mary Vingoe’s Refuge, directed by Kelly Thornton. The play was inspired in part by the award-winning CBC Radio documentary Habtom’s Path by Mary Lynk, as well as Vingoe’s personal experiences tutoring a woman from Ethiopia and hosting a Chinese student in her home. Refuge is presented in association with Amnesty International.
Community immigrant support group member Pamela Ross (Pamela Mala Sinha) tutors East African refugee Amleset Zerisenai (Andrea Davis) in English, and learns that Amleset’s son Ayinom, an army deserter, has been detained for arriving in the country without papers. She enlists the aid of immigration lawyer Saul Ackerman (Jason Weinberg), who eventually convinces her to take Ayinom in – much to the dismay of her husband Allan (Ryan Hollyman). With the assistance of interpreter Mebrahtu (Raïs Muoi), Ayinom gains a friend and a job. Shifting between past and present, Pamela, Saul and Mebrahtu are interviewed by a CBC interviewer (Mary Francis Moore) about Ayinom’s story.
We never see Ayinom – but his presence is felt strongly throughout. We never get a full picture of this young man, perceived as mysterious in that relatively little is known about him. Without documentation, authorities and allies must rely on first- and second-hand accounts of his status and character – an uncertain situation that provokes more questions than answers, as well as paranoia in a post-911 world. Exacerbating this is Pamela and Saul’s personal and legal history with the Air India bombing disaster, where Pamela lost her grandparents. Ayinom’s anxious mother describes him as a “good boy,” but we also learn from Mebrahtu that he was an uneducated young man, drafted into the army and handed a gun, and there are conflicting accounts of his rank and activities. And Ayinom’s quiet, unassuming personality gives them pause as well: is it due to the shock of the horrors of war and the long, terrible journey to get away – or is he up to something?
Nice work from the cast in this quiet, tension-filled piece. Stand-outs include Sinha, who brings an understated nuance to Pamela Ross’s inner conflict. Her head is at odds with her heart; and despite a reluctance to take Ayinom in, she wants to help Amleset and chooses to take a leap of faith and host him in her home – an undertaking that becomes even more challenging in the face of her husband’s growing paranoia and a complicated relationship with Saul. Weinberg’s Saul is a great combination of gruff charm and pragmatism on the outside with a warm-hearted centre that roots for the underdog. Beneath the bad jokes and sharp, realist attitude, he genuinely cares; like Pamela, Saul isn’t doing this so much for Ayinom as for someone he knows and cares about, and even though they have their doubts, they both want to believe in the good in this young man. Muoi is an informative delight as Mebrahtu; energetic, talkative and affable, he lays out the facts of the brutal situation in East Africa in a matter-of-fact, but never clinical, way. He doesn’t know Ayinom well, and they became close friends, but even he only knows what he’s been told and what he translates from Ayinom’s diary. And we get the sense that even he’s not sure what Ayinom is about.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Refuge is the physical absence of a key character. Ayinom is lacking (a word Pamela is teaching Amleset) in the action, but his presence is felt nevertheless. He is cared about, theorized about, talked about. But we never hear directly from him. We gather from others that he is a beloved son, a social cause, a refugee claimant under suspicion, a friend. He is determined, hard-working and well-liked, but quiet, solitary and uncommunicative. He has survived the bloodshed of war, travelled thousands of miles, enduring unknown and unspeakable horrors along the way. Ayinom is a young man seeking a better life, going through hell to get out of a horrific situation in his home country only to be put through a fresh kind of hell in the new country he longs to call home.
With shouts to set/costume designer Laura Gardner for the striking set design, with its cold whites and greys, footprints in the snow, and highly effective screen projections on fabric ‘walls’: the beautiful, eerie tree silhouettes and raging sea.
Assumptions, uncertainty and paranoia in the powerful, eye-opening Refuge.
Refuge continues at the Tarragon Extraspace until May 8; you can purchase advance tix online.
Check out the trailer: