Review: ‘I Am Not My Motherland’ at Orbiter 3 in Philadelphia

I Am Not My Motherland, the latest play from the Orbiter 3 playwriting collective, is about a medical operation that has complications, and about a relationship between two surgeons that also has complications. Emily Acker’s play explores these characters in interesting ways, and it’s a stimulating work full of intelligence and polish.

Hannah Gold and Isabella Sazak. Photo by Ginger Fox Photography.
Hannah Gold and Isabella Sazak. Photo by Ginger Fox Photography.

The two main characters in I Am Not My Motherland are Dr. Amima Leroy (Isabella Sazak), a star surgeon, and Dr. Jessica Rosel (Hannah Gold), a first-year resident. Dr. Leroy is arrogant and judgmental, with a bedside manner that’s practically non-existent; when a patient discusses his case with her, she replies curtly, “Respectfully, sir, I don’t care what you think.”

Meanwhile, young Dr. Rosel is as caring as her boss is cold. Easily flattered and abounding with empathy, Dr. Rosel is everything a patient could want in a doctor, except for her lack of surgical experience. When Dr. Rosel smiles and says “I’ve always thought of you as my mentor,” Dr. Leroy just stares at her blankly and says, “Yep.”

The two operate on a 60-year-old patient (played by Brian Anthony Wilson) with kidney cancer, and although Dr. Rosel is unsure about her own skills, Dr. Leroy has enough experience and confidence to make up for it. Despite this, something goes horribly wrong during the surgery, and both doctors – plus, needless to say, the patient – have to deal with the aftermath.

At times the relationship between the two doctors seemed overly familiar; it reminded me of the relationship between the surgeons played by William Daniels and Ed Begley Jr. on St. Elsewhere. But Acker takes the characters in a different direction, giving hints about what shaped their personalities and their approaches to medicine.

Acker intersperses the present-day scenes with scenes involving the doctors’ ancestors. Rosel’s grandfather was an Israeli doctor, and Leroy’s mother was a Palestinian refugee. The play shows us a meeting between the two during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, an encounter that had a huge impact on both of them and which continues to affect their descendants.

Acker explores the characters in a novel way, though at times I wished for the characters to be fleshed out more so I could better understand their motivations. Leroy comes off as too much of a caricature of a professional woman in a man’s world, and the explanation that she’s still living through her mother’s pain from seven decades ago doesn’t seem sufficient to justify her callous behavior.

Isabella Sazak, Brian Anthony Wilson and Hannah Gold. Photo by Ginger Fox Photography.
Isabella Sazak, Brian Anthony Wilson and Hannah Gold. Photo by Ginger Fox Photography.

And the 1948 scenes, showing how supposed enemies were brought together by the brutal conflict, cry out for more discussion of the pain that the characters are working through. The play currently runs 75 minutes, and augmenting these scenes could make this brief work seem more substantial.

Director Rebecca Wright plays with time even during the present-day scenes, showing the actors jerking their heads to indicate we are moving into a different scene or into a different perspective on the same scene. It’s an intriguing and vital way to present a story where the point of view is crucial.

Yet this constantly shifting technique sometimes hurts the clarity of the storytelling. For instance, while Gold and Sazak play the characters in the flashbacks, it took me some time to realize that Gold may be playing two characters in these scenes, rather than two radically different visions of the same person.

I Am Not My Motherland has received a sleek, dazzling presentation, with Masha Tsimring’s gleaming black and white set design making for an unexpected unity between its two settings. Adriano Shaplin’s sound design provides electronic blips during the hospital scenes and gunfire during the war scenes; John Barry’s lush, romantic music from Out of Africa is used to underscore some of the 1948 scenes.

All the actors are completely convincing. Wilson is pleasantly jovial as a country gentleman who doesn’t realize (or care) how much of a male chauvinist he is, and Sazak is focused and intense as the driven doctor who helps and hurts at the same time. But it’s Gold who is most impressive, with a sensitive and expressive turn as the doctor who wears her heart on her sleeve.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

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 I Am Not My Motherland plays through July 31, 2016 at Orbiter 3, performing at St. Stephen’s Theater – 10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. Tickets may be purchased online.