Review | He’s starring in the role he was born to play: His mom

Review | He’s starring in the role he was born to play: His mom

Entering the theater, a small, sumptuous set awaits. Nine dramatic crystal chandeliers hang above three tall mirrors and a lush green carpet; picturesque vases and teapots surround an abundant spread of food. Even star Michael Shayan, clad in a black and gold lamé robe and weaving his way through the audience, fully in character as his mother, Roya, sparkles.

It’s not just any spread: This is haft-sin, a symbolic table arrangement for the Iranian new year celebration of Nowruz. Everything featured has a symbolic purpose: Sumac represents a new day, garlic stands in for health, an apple means beauty.

As the play “Avaaz” at Olney Theatre Center walks through Roya’s story, told in a one-man show written by and starring Shayan, those table accents will act as touchstones through important moments in her life, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal. “Beauty” stands for her time working at the Beauty Palace salon in the “Tehrangeles” part of L.A., namely Westwood. To Iranians, everything’s a palace, Roya remarks flippantly, even a dental office.

Shayan’s Roya walks through life buoyed by a quick-witted, casual, self-effacing humor, and a generous spirit of hospitality. She puts the audience at ease, even in the show’s heaviest moments, with her razor-sharp (if occasionally groan-inducing) quips. In Roya’s world, an activist is a politician without a job; a first date set up by your parents is a “fact check”; time living with her son is like the Iranian hostage crisis (“I was the hostage; he was in crisis”).

But her sardonic surface masks the scars of a troubled existence, and as the show probes deeper, we get glimpses into her abusive marriage and the imprisonment and death of her crusading father (designer Amith Chandrashaker’s moody lighting cues smartly transition between “Avaaz’s” tenser and sunnier moments). Roya also serves as a cultural ambassador, giving Iran credit for being the driving force behind everything from the guitar to chess, and providing glimpses into the Iranian Jewish immigrant community that surrounded her after she arrived in the United States.

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The real-life Roya was tight-lipped about her past until Shayan decided to interview her about it, and the play makes clear he has come to understand and admire her as a complicated survivor. But it’s an understanding that hasn’t come easily, and “Avaaz” refuses to put Roya on a pedestal; as the play winds toward its conclusion, Roya worries whether Michael will even show up for the Nowruz celebration, given they’ve been recently estranged.

The pair, in Roya’s own telling, have tangled over Michael’s queer identity (Roya insists she’s fine with his being gay but wants him to be a little quieter about it), and she needles him relentlessly over his weight. Their issues climax in a powerful scene, as Roya tearfully contends with her forced role as both mother and father, as Michael’s dad had become a sporadic figure in his life after his parents’ separation.

Shayan has a charming, relaxed rapport with the crowd, bonding enthusiastically with other Iranians in attendance and roping in strangers to reenact moments like a typical conversation between two sets of parents arranging a marriage match. He gets the audience to join Roya in a traditional Persian dance (like the Macarena but sexier, with more shoulders, Roya urges).

Their fraught relationship has clearly reached some sort of understanding; the real-life Roya was proudly in the audience Sunday afternoon, enthusiastically introduced to the crowd after the play wrapped. That sense of peace starts to take shape even as “Avaaz” comes to a close. Shayan has one more trick up his sleeve, leaving Roya’s character behind and transforming back to himself. His closing solo dance feels defiant, celebratory and free.

Avaaz, through April 7 at Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Md. Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

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