Christopher Chen’s tense, fascinating Passage is a delicate walk through a field of landmines, not all of which remain unexploded. As the title implies, the play is a journey — not only across space, between hypothetical countries, but into the internal abyss: the shadowy subcutaneous expanse where imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown. It’s a play about the birth of ideas and their tenacious, dangerous progression, how we cling to them for both attack and defense, and if they can ever be separated from the bodies in which they reside. It’s also, as one of its actors tells us, a “remix” of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, but we’re quickly asked, whether or not we’ve read the novel, to “let that go” and afford the story its own life. The actors in Passage do a lot of direct reaching out to the audience: As the play begins, they introduce themselves (their real selves) and tell us where they’re from. They often turn to us in the middle of speaking and ask (really ask, or try to) questions like “Do you know what I’m talking about?” or “That makes sense, right?” The brief, focused show has no intermission, but it does have a break halfway through: After the violent crux of the play’s action, we’re given a “little pause” to breathe and stretch, and then asked, “How’s it going so far?”
In these moments, there’s something so earnest, so calmly and smilingly solicitous, about Passage that the production can begin to feel like a focus group or a seminar on some particularly sensitive topic — and, in a sense, it is. But all the same, I couldn’t help feeling the play’s engine sputter whenever the audience had to have its temperature taken. Chen is walking a fine line: Like Forster, he’s trying to cast the net of his sympathy as wide as possible, but like the contemporary playwright he is, he’s nervous about casting it too wide. The stormy heavens of current political discourse forbid that “the burden of empathy” be placed on the wrong people. More than anything, he wants our active participation, our willing personal soul-searching, no matter how tough things get. “Stay with me,” Lizan Mitchell repeatedly entreats us, playing a matriarchal holy woman berobed in integrity and equanimity. And we do stay with her, but not because of the times when we’re handled with kid gloves, which feel tiring if not overtly patronizing. We stay because, at its bravest, Passage leans into its own possibly insoluble complexities and keeps making its way forward and down.
The play takes its basic scenario from Forster’s novel but strips away as many signifiers as it can. On the bare blond wood of Arnulfo Maldonado’s set — with its simple turntable and its ingenious stage cubes that conceal and provide any objects the actors need — Passage often feels like a Socratic exercise, its strains of argument both familiar and defamiliarized. (Plato’s there, too, lurking in the caves that sit at the story’s center.) “Country Y,” we’re told, is the occupying power in “Country X.” (It’s more important that we understand the power dynamic between Y and X than that we recognize them as, say, Britain and India.) As the play begins, Q (Andrea Abello) — the characters, like the places they’re from, are identified only by letters — is on her way from the colonizing country to the colonized one. She’s a naïve, well-intentioned young woman traveling to join her fiancé (Yair Ben-Dor), and on the boat she meets F (Linda Powell), generous, decorous, and headed to Country X to work as a teacher. Meanwhile, the Country X-ers are chafing under years of oppressive Country Y rule. The uncompromising H (Purva Bedi) and the genial M (David Ryan Smith) debate — first cheerfully, then ferociously — over whether it’s possible for citizens of the two nations ever to be true friends. And B (K.K. Moggie) — an accomplished doctor and a would-be optimist and humanist despite the daily indignities she experiences at the hands of bigoted Country Y-ers, including her deplorable boss (Howard W. Overshown) — finds herself venturing into a hesitant yet intense friendship with F. As the pair edge carefully toward each other, it’s like watching two people reach across a canyon: One moment of commitment by one and hesitation by the other, and someone will be dashed to pieces.
Such is B’s sad fate, spiritually if not physically. When she takes F and Q to see Country X’s famous caves — known for strange and revelatory experiences, for changing people “in ways they can’t describe” — a murky moment of terror in the darkness leads to a false accusation of assault leveled against B. And whatever bridge she and F might have built begins to fall away into the abyss, piece by brittle piece. “Only connect,” wrote Forster in Howard’s End — but that was in 1910, and his story never left Europe. Fourteen years later, in A Passage to India, it’s as if he’s revisiting that credo, testing its strength under circumstances that might well prove too much for it. The heartbreak and the horror of Passage is in watching the steady, seemingly logical process of isolation that results from the accumulation of “private wounds.” People fail and other people get hurt, sometimes irreparably. And the world’s deep-rooted, unjust institutions of power all too often determine which people are which — where the wounds accumulate and where accountability can be systematically evaded.
Passage is balancing right on the edge of a really terrifying kind of despair, the idea that while oppressive systems remain in place, human connection within them, across differences, is truly an impossibility. There’s real, raw panic in the air when M pleads with H not to “start the argument with ‘Everything’s hopeless’,” not to posit that “we don’t have the capacity to make friends with … an entire race of people … That’s sticking your head in the sand!” he cries. “That’s clear sight!” she answers, unmoved. Director Saheem Ali — who keeps the staging swift and simple, the tone thoughtful and probing throughout — is working with all actors of color, and so the question of race in Chen’s play is simultaneously off the table and yet always right there underneath it. When H talks about how Country Y-ers possess “an inherited power, which is still an active power, which [they] can’t give away or dismiss,” the real-world signifiers of her argument are hard and clear, and — as is often the case with theater — sharper and more expansive for having transcended the literal.
To Chen’s great credit, Passage struggles not to prescribe, to side tangibly with M or H. It tries to stay true to its title, fashioning itself as a long dark corridor through which we’re all stepping together — tentatively, fearfully, hopefully — without a light or a door yet in sight. “Each of you is seeing this story in a different way, depending on your experience,” Mitchell’s holy woman tells us, later adding that our varying responses may be “based on the amount of — if I may — privilege or non-privilege you have.” Fine. Be it a reflection of my privilege or not, I remain faithful to “Only connect,” and for all its hard-fought self-interrogation, I believe Chen’s play does too. What will change systems, after all, but people? And how can people change them without continuing to reach across the gaps? You don’t write plays if you truly believe in the futility of human relationships. At its heart, no matter its capacity for shadow, making theater is one of the most absurdly optimistic acts there is. It is, as Forster might say, a way of showing “one’s own little light here, one’s own poor little trembling flame, with the knowledge that it is not the only light that is shining in the darkness, and not the only one which the darkness does not comprehend.”
Passage is at Soho Rep through May 26.