Playwrights Show Touches Issues That Dominate News

Latest production Of "Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven" raises stakes with hint of violence

Russell Davis did not intend his play, "Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven," to be quite so tied to current events.

If he had, he might have chosen to write about a brother and sister from Egypt, Iraq or another Middle Eastern country that was in the news when he began writing it in 2004.

But with a thwarted terrorist attack in Times Square on Saturday night and Iran's controversial leader addressing the United Nations on Monday, "Mahida" can't help but resonate with audiences at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, where it runs through Sunday.

Davis grew up in Europe and the Middle East, where his father, an engineer, was involved in building everything from Army barracks to the Hilton hotel in Rome. He attended a British boarding school before moving to the United States to start college.

With "Mahida," he didn't set out to write a political play, though he admits that he was "very embarrassed and disturbed by some American behavior abroad" during the Bush administration.

"I do want people to question and to think" about issues raised in the play, especially by the character of Edna, who is described in dialogue by the character Thomas, her son, as a conservative, gun-toting American.

Davis said that despite some of the offensive and ignorant words he put in her mouth, he likes Edna and thinks she has changed her attitude somewhat by the end of the play.

The main confrontation between Edna and Ramin, a young Iranian man who has come to her home looking for his sister, was expanded for the production at Playwrights Theatre, Davis said.

While he usually avoids "dramatic devices," such as the use of a gun onstage, he added the section where Edna introduces the idea of violence because it seemed to flow naturally from the preceding conversation.

The playwright said he prefers the production in Madison to an off-Broadway one last fall that he said took a more intellectual approach to the play, which begins with Thomas meeting a young Iranian college student, Mahida, who is waiting alone for a ferry from an island to the mainland late at night.

In the latest version, the actors seem to inhabit the characters and the production is "fundamentally closer to the spirit of the piece," Davis said, also praising the play's direction by Playwrights Theatre artistic director John Pietrowski.

One of the first readings of "Mahida" was done at the Madison theater, which has staged readings and productions of Davis' work since the mid-1980s, he said.

Davis recently finished a first draft of a new play called "The Other Days of Timothy" and he is working on another, "Chronicles of an Innocent Bystander." Pietrowski has offered to do a reading of one of them this fall in Madison.


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