Roxanna Hope and James Wallert in
Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven
(© Carol Rosegg)
Roxanna Hope and James Wallert in
Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven
(© Carol Rosegg)
With a title like Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven, Russell Davis' new play being presented by the Epic Theatre Company at Theater Row, theatergoers can anticipate a healthy dose of allegory. Unfortunately, allegory isn't always analogous with drama, and Mahida rarely proves to be more than fitfully engaging, despite a fine cast and Will Pomerantz's sturdy direction.

The play begins with the awkwardly gregarious Thomas (amiably played by James Wallert) and the primly aloof Mahida (an often luminescent Roxanna Hope) "meeting cute" on a pier late one night after she's missed the last ferry from the resort island on which the play's set. When Thomas offers her a place to crash -- the couch at his mother's house (brought to life with surprising architectural and metaphorical beauty by scenic designer Mimi Lien) -- theatergoers learn the reason for her extremely demure behavior. Her brother has come to the U.S. to take her back to Iran. After she's refused, he's abandoned her, but she's concerned he might still be watching.

Ultimately, Mahida accepts Thomas' offer and the following morning she meets his well-meaning, fussbudget mother Edna (the always reliable Michelle Pawk in a pitch-perfect turn), who's not so much conservative as provincial. Mahida's able to smile about Edna's views, but when Mahida's militant brother Ramie (a frighteningly subdued Arian Moayed) arrives on the scene, Edna's barefaced American boosterism meets a less generous audience.

There's a powder keg of conflict in Mahida from the potential conflagration between Edna and Ramie to the simmering hostility, brought on by different worldviews, between Edna and Thomas. There's also a strong romantic and philosophical current flowing between Thomas and Mahida. And given all of this, it's surprising that so much of the play fails to spark to life. Part of the problem is that portions of the work are just overwritten and overly symbolic, such as when Mahida decides that a small bench on the pier can act as "the border" between herself and Thomas. And, when fireworks do eventually arrive, the play borders on cliché.

Finally, there's the allegory about that extra key, which actually is not introduced by Mahida, but by Thomas, who draws a picture based on an unfinished short story Mahida's written about a little girl, a wolf, and a raven. He finishes the story with his picture, which includes a dove that holds the key to a locked door. The picture also depicts that there are more keys to be found, if one looks at the bird's shadow. Davis' meaning is neither subtle nor indistinct: even people as different as Thomas, Mahida, and Edna will manage to find some way to coexist peaceably and lovingly. It's a worthwhile message, but one can't help but wish that it were delivered with more elegance and true drama.