Arts theater review

Can religion and reason agree on love?

The Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater presents Paradise

Written by Laura Maria Censabella
Directed by Shana Gozansky
Artistic Director: Debra Wise
Central Square Theater
Apr. 6–May 7

The compatibility of science and tradition has long been a contentious issue, grappled by scientists and nonscientists alike. Reason and religion are often seen as clashing, similarly to how Western individualism contrasts conventional collectivism.

In Paradise by Laura Maria Censabella, these issues are addressed through two lenses. Yasmeen (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy), a bright and hopeful Muslim-American teenager, and Dr. Guy Royston (Barlow Adamson), a disillusioned and disgruntled biology teacher, present starkly different views when it comes to these issues. By the end of the play, the two characters walk out of the classroom with completely changed attitudes on a variety of levels due to their collaboration on scientific research and their emotional investment in each other’s problems.

The first scene opens on a visibly frustrated Dr. Royston sitting at his desk in a high school classroom in the Bronx. The former Ivy League professor seems agitated by almost everything — the bustling noise of the children outside in the hall, the lighting in the room, and the cracks on the wall, expertly crafted by the scenic designer (Jenna McFarland Lord).

Then, Yasmeen, enters, offering a dramatic contrast in energy levels. Yasmeen hugs her backpack tightly to her, bright-eyed and bubbly. She chatters on about her biology test Dr. Royston had recently graded, and how she could not get a bad grade in the class. Dr. Royston hardly pays attention, shooing the young girl away and occasionally making rude comments. 

However, Dr. Royston, a renowned neuroscientist who fell from the graces, can’t resist a good research question. Haunted by love lost and believing the view that love is a basic need and craving that must be satisfied, Dr. Royston can’t resist getting involved with Yasmeen’s research focused on love in the young brain. For both Yasmeen and Dr. Royston, studying love is driven not only by a passionate scientific inquiry, but also a personal pursuit to figuring out how to make life more complete and what drives human beings to devote time and energy to each other. Yasmeen impresses him with her intellect, and by the end of the play, she has an opportunity to go to Columbia.

However, it is a long road to get there. Yasmeen is persistent, and returns over and over again to Dr. Royston’s classroom during her free time, despite his negative comments. She comes armed with bits and pieces from her culture. Whether it is presenting him with a traditional dagger, patiently answering his inquiries, quoting verses from the Qur’an, or gifting him Yemeni sweets, she fights the negative stereotype in his head. He spends the first part of the play extremely reluctant to let the girl burrow her way into his life, but with every new tradition and opposing view, Dr. Royston’s hard outer shell softens.

One of the first cultural differences occurs when Dr. Royston tries to close the door to the classroom, and Yasmeen stops him immediately, saying she can not be alone in a room with a man. She cites her faith as the reason and explains how people would say bad things if they found out; however, later on in the play, the door gets closed. When Yasmeen learns about the parts of the brain, Dr. Royston taps different parts of her head with a pencil and asks for their names. When Yasmeen has a panic attack, Dr. Royston is the one to get up close to her and calm her down. These are just a few of many examples of Yasmeen and Dr. Royston first accommodating each other's cultural views and then altering the rules of their relationship as they grow personally.

Dr. Royston initially scoffs at Yasmeen’s tendencies and beliefs, but these eventually turn into values and characteristics that he respects and appreciates. Her self-sacrificing nature in regards to her family is an interesting initial point of contention. Her uncle wants her to be married to another Yemeni man, and doesn’t know of her intellectual passions. From Yasmeen’s point of view, her obligation to follow her uncle’s wishes and put her sisters and family first is virtuous. Her arranged marriage represents security and financial relief. However, Dr. Royston can’t fathom this. He views the marriage as chains being wrapped around Yasmeen. He believes she doesn’t owe her future to anyone, and that she would be wasting her mind and life if she doesn’t put herself first. However, going through the experience with Yasmeen helps Dr. Royston appreciate the high stakes of the situation and Yasmeen’s love for her family.

Yasmeen recognizes that she faces multiple personal and professional issues that could hinder  her pursuit of her dream career in neuroscience. She represents a contemporary woman attempting to balance respect for her culture and the desire to be an individual. Her devotion to both her ethnic roots and to the American dream and what it offers produces in a variety of issues.

As a child socialized in multiple cultures, Yasmeen’s environment-dependent identity fragmentation leads to a major source of personal growth for not only her but also Dr. Royston, who witnesses her story play out. Dr. Royston starts off as a brisque, uninterested stranger, but turns into an invested, dedicated mentor. The two individuals rely on their interactions with one another to address their deepest desires and fears, and the audience becomes personally invested in the story of Yasmeen and Dr. Royston, hoping to see their success and friendship grow.

The director, Shana Gozansky, refers to her relationship with the play as “more than a connection. It’s a haven.” Especially in a time where a nuanced understanding of other cultures seems to be missing, the play is a sight for sore eyes. Yasmeen and Dr. Royston experiencing the growing pains that come with the clash of cultural differences, but overcoming it anyway, puts on a moving performance that is heartwarming and inspiring.