When you step into the Owen Theatre at the Goodman for the world premiere of “Layalina” you will be drawn into the intricate set. Delicately crafted by casaboyce, this stunning home of the Ibrahim family in 2003 Baghdad, Iraq is a work of art. With smatterings of a lived-in feel, it is fun to just stare at the set before the show even begins, getting lost in the chandelier hanging over the living room or the delicate carvings along the main stairs. But just wait until its transformation into a home circa 2020 in Skokie. You may want to skip leaving during the intermission break just to watch the magic happen.
In both of these homes live members of the Ibrahim family. Inspired by playwright Martin Yousif Zebari’s own experiences with his family immigrating to Skokie from Iraq, “Layalina” is a masterclass in generational storytelling. From parents Yasir and Karima to their children, some of whom are separated by more than a decade in age, we bear witness to the unfolding of their lives. From the hardships of leaving a country criminally made wartorn by the United States to assimilating into the country that caused the hardship, Zebari weaves this story as if he were an artist at the loom.
“Layalina” is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful and best-acted works I’ve seen in a long time. Directed by Sivan Battat, the ensemble of five phenomenal actors brings multiple characters to life over the course of the two-hour runtime. In act one, each actor plays someone in the family, and in act two they play someone entirely different. Not only do they move through these personas seamlessly, but it’s also easy to forget they were someone else just moments ago. The biggest transformations of all (besides the intricate set) are those made by Waseem Alzer as brothers Sahir and Amin, and Atra Asdou as mother Karima/daughter Layal.
The double casting of this show is indicated in Zebari’s script and is part of what makes this show such an incredible depiction of family. Why? Because as each actor embodies another family member we are reminded, subtly, that we, too, are made up of the stuff of those who have loved us. Whether we like it or not, there are characteristics and tendencies we each carry within ourselves taken from those who came before. A similar visage, perhaps, or a deep love of fashion, there are many ways to carry a family legacy. Here Yasir and adult Mazin are nearly identical, which is symbolic of how life has shaped both of them. These metaphors are beautifully strung throughout the play, making it well worth multiple viewings.
I’m at a loss for how to do justice to this incredible depiction of not just a Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) family, but the idea of the family altogether. From the quiet moments of young Layal and Karima making dolma at the dining-room table to the trio of pseudo-cousins reveling in their queer identities, everything we see is so genuinely familial. Enmeshing Arabic into scenes without translation reminds those of us who don’t speak Arabic that we aren’t privy to every moment. Nor should we be. And yet, we’re all lucky enough here to witness them anyway.
Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, $15-$50, goodmantheatre.org. Through April 2.