Play about Mississippi Muslim woman educates audience about Islam

“Your husband’s penis is the first penis you should see! Your father’s penis was the first penis I ever saw!”

Motherly advice such as this comes as common as prayer in the Emir household.

Suehyla El-Attar’s West Coast premiere of “The Perfect Prayer” May 18 at Cyrano’s Off Center Playhouse manages to toe the fine line between profound hilarity and pure profundity.

A semi-autobiographical account of a twenty-something American girl raised Muslim in the South may sound like a TBS sitcom gone terribly awry, but the execution effortlessly conveys vast amounts of information about Islam – the real Islam, not the Fox News version – and lifts a veil covering the blatant parallels between the major religions.

The female lead, Hadia, played by Jamie Pauley, struggles to find her role as a young Muslim woman in contemporary Western society. Her emotional growth is further complicated by her traditional parents, played by Anchorage theater vets Marius Panzarella and Vivian Kinnaird, who generally disapprove of most American conventions such as pepperoni, boys and Twinkies. Making Hadia’s college years more tumultuous is her blossoming relationship with a white Catholic boy – UAA’s own Anthony Oliva in his Cyrano’s debut – in her father’s class on contemporary Muslim societies.

Oliva provides both the voice of Western reason and a large chunk of the comic relief, with a dialogue-free bit that puts any “let me get you a cup of coffee” pickup line to shame. Hadia’s mother dispenses hilarious proverbial wisdom, such as “Be sure to be a good Muslim girl,” in between episodes of her favorite soap opera, and her accent is believable and entertaining without sounding stereotypical.

Cyrano’s quasi-thrust stage seems a perfect fit for such an intimate and in-your-face production, and it’s clear that director Erick Hayden has a keen eye for detail – the opening night production was seamlessly executed. The set design is simple and elegant, and it requires only a few brief changes, keeping the audience deeply engrossed throughout the two-act production.

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El-Attar’s script is remarkably poignant and unique in design. Rather than weigh down scenes with heavy-handed monologues, or cram preachy, pedantic parables down the throats of undeserving theatergoers, the father gives a series of brief but realistic lectures through his Muslim Societies class that provide an extraordinary amount of perspective on Muslim dogma and the universality of monotheistic religion.

This play would greatly benefit from a run on campus. Although it may not have been the playwright’s intention, the audience learns a lot about Islam. El-Attar addressed this effect in a supplemental letter:

“The most important aspect of this play is its universality. It’s not a vehicle to teach Islam, that’s just a bonus if it does happen. I just want someone to walk out of this show and realize how alike all of us truly are.”

Sharply written and masterfully performed, “The Perfect Prayer” is truly a powerful piece. It speaks directly to college students, and most will be able to identify deeply with the characters.