Transplanted from her strife-torn desert homeland of Afghanistan to the unwelcoming soil of Mississippi, Anisah gazes at an alien culture with wonder, perplexity, amusement — and not unwarranted fear.
It is through her eyes that the bigotry and bounty of America are reflected in John Walch’s tale, “In the Book Of.” And it is through the luminous portrayal of Anisah by Carolyn Marie Monroe that Walch’s solidly accessible but disaappointedly simplistic play gains some credible force.
“In the Book Of” brings the fraught debate over immigration and anti-Muslim backlash down home to the fictional city of Broxton, Miss., where the honorably discharged African-American soldier Naomi (Allison Strickland) returns from Middle East combat to live near her (white) Southern in-laws.
Somehow (and this is one of several critical details insufficiently explained here), Naomi manages to bring along with her the undocumented refugee Anisah, her trusted military translator. The two have bonded over losing their husbands to war. And Anisah is rightly terrified that when her job with the Americans ends, she will be vulnerable to violent reprisals from her nation’s warring factions.
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But Monroe’s watchful, curious and believably bilingual Anisah lands in the middle of another kind of war in the U.S. It pits the tolerant folk who honor the contributions of those who have assisted our armed forces, and who believe in opening our shores to the oppressed, against the xenophobes enraged by an influx of “illegals” (especially people of color) who may pose threats to our economy and (presumably homogeneous) “way of life.”
“In the Book Of” stakes out its battle stations clearly. There is the sketchily drawn but tolerant and feisty Naomi (named, as per the play’s title, after the biblical heroine who shelters her daughter-in-law Ruth). And on the other side, there is Gail (Pam Nolte), the big sister of Naomi’s late husband. She’s a rabble-rousing good ol’ gal whose sweep-out-the-immigrants demagoguery sweeps her into right-wing politics.
In Scott Nolte’s well-cast and briskly paced staging at Taproot, Nolte sports a mighty drawl, waves around a symbolic broom and has a ball slinging Southern-fried wisecracks and campaign slogans. And Nolan Palmer, as a mild-mannered guy who takes his wife’s tangents in stride, holds his own playing Gail’s husband, Bo.
“In the Book Of” gets sticky by conferring near-sainthood on the unfailingly wise, patient and aphoristic Anisah, and broadly painting Gail’s followers as not merely misguided, but a pack of rabid yahoos.
An interfamilal romance involving Gail’s shadowy son (Kevin Pitman) is a contrivance that saves the day for everyone, but closes the case with a thick coating of sentimentality.
Despite such tiresome Hallmark Channel tendencies, “In the Book Of” does land a few hard punches, yield some honest laughs and raise some live-wire issues. It also makes at least one provocative conjecture: is our nation (especially the South) growing more tolerant in its black-white relations — while finding new scapegoats and inflaming new prejudices?
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org