Immigration, assimilation, and religion make romance complicated in Rohina Malik's play.
What's in a name? In the first moments of Yasmina's Necklace, now playing at the Goodman Theatre, Abdul Samee (Michael Perez) announces that he will go by the name "Sam" professionally, to the dismay of his Muslim parents Ali and Sara (Amro Salama and Laura Crotte). The name change isn't the first time Sam has broken his parents' hearts — some years prior, he married a non-Muslim woman, a match that ended in divorce. To placate his parents, Sam agrees to consider a traditional arranged marriage.
The match, made by Imam Kareem (Allen Gilmore), is to Yasmina (Susaan Jamshidi), a painter who is a recent refugee, coming first from Iraq, then Syria, then Turkey. Sam's mother Sara balks at the idea of her son marrying a refugee, but Sam and Yasmina unexpectedly hit it off.
Like many romantic comedies, they initially dislike each other and have misunderstandings to overcome. Unlike your standard popcorn fare, however, these two lovers have more substantial baggage as well. Sam is riddled with self-loathing and anxiety stemming from his multiracial upbringing (his mother Sara is a Puerto Rican convert to Islam, and his father is ethnically Iraqi) and his failed marriage. Yasmina went through hell before coming to Chicago and now focuses her energy entirely on aiding less fortunate refugees and supporting her father. The pair grow closer when Sam offers to help Yasmina with the paperwork for her nascent nonprofit. A romance soon blossoms, but Yasmina's psychological issues cannot be smoothed over with a meet-cute and some heartfelt monologues, and the couple must navigate P.T.S.D., cultural clashes and familial expectations on their path to happiness.
Jamshidi's steady performance conveys the depth of Yasmina's suffering, and it's easy to see why Yasmina's strength of character would ground Sam. Perez plays Sam with humor and frankness, wearing his heart on his sleeve, in contrast to the withdrawn Yasmina. Playwright Rohina Malik has written fully fleshed-out characters with robust inner lives, and watching the couple get to know each other is engrossing. They have similar chemistry with their respective parents. Salama and Crotte play Sam's overbearing parents with enough warmth to offset their vexing meddling, and Rom Barkhordar shows tenderness and a touch of comic mischief as Yasmina's widowed father, Musa.
Ann Filmer, who also directed the world premiere of the play last year at the 16th Street Theater, helms the production with a keen eye. The scenic design by Joe Schermoly emphasizes Yasmina's and Sam's divided worlds with a split stage, one side sparsely furnished as Yasmina's apartment, the other richly decorated to show Sam's parents' home. Rachel M. Sypniewski's costumes use color and cultural cues to give insight into the characters.
Malik's dialogue occasionally veers into melodrama, particularly in its second-act revelation of Yasmina's "secret" — a twist that is not particularly blindsiding. The story fares better when focusing on the relationships onstage, including flashbacks to Yasmina's time in Baghdad with her childhood friend Amir (Martin Hanna). The families onstage feel both relatable and specific, and the unfolding of the romance in particular makes Yasmina's Necklace a pleasure to watch.