If you want to understand the Sixties, go back to the early 1800s, when Romantic poets like William Wordsworth rejected classical rationalism to celebrate the beauty of deep emotion and the sanctity of individual experience. Playwright Mona Mansour mines this rich literary tradition in “The Hour of Feeling,” an intensely emotional journey from Palestine to London for a young Romantics scholar and his new wife on the eve of the Six-Day War.
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey, “The Hour of Feeling” premiered Thursday in the Pamela Brown Auditorium in the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville and runs through April 1.
In 1967, fresh from graduate studies in Cairo, ambitious Romantic poetry scholar Adham (Hadi Tabbal) wins a fellowship to deliver a paper on Wordsworth at a prestigious conference in London. While his mother (Judith Delgado) prepares to send Adham off to grow his budding academic career, he falls for local beauty Abir (Rasha Zamamiri) and they marry in haste. When the couple arrives in London, Adham must confront his insecurities and negotiate his new role as husband as the threat of violence back home grows.
The scholars hosting Adham, jovial Theo (William Connell) and alpha male George (David Barlow), offer us a glimpse of the life of “great ideas” for which Adham yearns and the competition he faces on larger academic turf. Art might be universal, but it is not necessarily uniting.
The couple’s own conflicts are palpable. At every turn, Adham and Abir struggle. Like many young adults of that era, they try to reconcile their own modern desires with deeply-rooted cultural habits. But Adham also wrestles constantly with what Wordsworth himself called those “silent laws our hearts will make / which they shall long obey.” When the Six-Day War erupts and Adham and Abir learn that Israel has defeated Egypt and its allies, they face life-changing decisions that pit ambition against duty and safety against danger.
They also struggle with fluency of language — Abir with limited English in her new social surroundings, Adham with modulating his hard Arabic cadence to fit the world he wishes to enter. As a foreigner specializing in British poetry, he’s keenly aware of his outsider position.
How Mansour and Wing-Davey handle the friction surrounding language is one of the play’s most effective artistic decisions. When Adham and Abir are alone or with his mother, the actors speak English in their own American accents. To the audience’s ears, they sound natural, not foreign. But with their new colleagues, they speak English with heavy accents and struggle with pronunciation, and speak Arabic to each other as subtitles are projected for the audience. Their otherness, so invisible when they’re alone, becomes undeniable in the company of the British academics.
Mansour’s characters are rich and complex and it is a delight to watch the cast bring them to life. Adham is a tightly-coiled spring of intellect and desire, and Tabbal’s crackling performance makes it clear just how deeply and how hard Adham wants. Tabbal can crank the tension in a scene to 11 and then diffuse it with perfect comedic timing and charm. He is exhausting to watch, and it is brilliant.
Abir is no shrinking village girl violet herself — Zamamiri is utterly enchanting as the feisty and loyal wife Adham must prove he deserves (it takes a special kind of woman to make Wordsworth sexy).
Delgado gives Adham’s mother a ramrod spine to match her iron will, and she displays no self-pity as she recounts the heart-breaking decisions made to give Adham the opportunities she herself yearned for but could not have. Even when she’s not on stage, her presence is felt — fitting, as Adham carries his mother with him wherever he goes.
The design team deserves a standing ovation for seamless collaboration. Michael B. Raiford’s flexible sets provide an effective and adaptable canvas for evocative lights (Brian Lilienthal) and video work (Phillip Allgeier). All of this is underscored by Matt Callahan’s sound design, which continues a trend of excellent period soundtracking in this year’s festival. The ebullient sounds of late-1960s pop music, from Lulu to Tom Jones, permeates the couple’s London jaunt. It’s loud on purpose — from explosions to the swell of music as Adham launches into his lecture, the intensity of each startling, life-changing experience is felt to the core.