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Iran-US relations, from a woman’s perspective

Christina Pumariega and Beth Wittig in “The Persian Quarter,’’ a play by Kathleen Cahill. Christina Pumariega and Beth Wittig in “The Persian Quarter,’’ a play by Kathleen Cahill. (Mallory Johnston)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / September 10, 2011

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The Green Revolution in Iran made the TV news day after day in 2009, and playwright Kathleen Cahill was watching.

“I kept looking at these women who were being shot at in the street,’’ Cahill says, “and there was the famous death of Neda, which you can watch on YouTube if you want to, and . . . it just sort of stirred up all my memories.’’

In the mid-1970s, Cahill spent 10 months teaching English to young women in the Shah’s Iran. Watching the Green Revolution led her to read about the modern history of the country and its tortured relations with the United States. “I started connecting the information I was gathering with my own memories, and out of that came this play,’’ she says.

“The Persian Quarter,’’ an East Coast premiere opening next Thursday at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, skips through time to touch on CIA operations in the 1950s, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and a New York visit by the current president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But it’s never a polemic, always a human story, focusing on four women: an American who becomes one of the embassy hostages in Tehran in 1979-81, one of her female captors, and their daughters. They meet in New York three decades later, and their relationships personalize conflicts between the West and Islam and between the women and their roles in each culture.

“The historical event that fades from the newspapers lives on in the lives of the people it touched and that were hurt by it, and the hurt continues down through the generations,’’ Cahill says.

In linking scenes, the poet Rumi appears, a provocateur and something of a mystic. He’s Cahill’s representation of the poetic side of Iran’s character, which she says is seldom portrayed in Western media. The Rumi character calls the play “a story told on a Persian carpet . . . an invisible carpet in which we are both the weavers and the threads.’’

Director Kyle Fabel says the Iran hostage crisis was the first big news story he remembers seeing on TV: “These were the first images that ever really terrified me, the images of those people with the great big blindfolds on. Those images came back to me when I read the script and spoke to me in a way that plays with a political backdrop sometimes don’t.’’

For Cahill, her months in Iran were simply a post-college adventure. But before leaving that country in 1977 she saw the first stirrings of what would soon become the Islamic Revolution. “These students that were wearing miniskirts and chunky-heeled shoes started showing up in chadors. They were asserting their identity as Iranians and as Muslims. It was a revolutionary act to do that,’’ Cahill says.

She remembers being told while she was there that the CIA had installed the Shah in power, “and I remember saying that was not possible. I thought it was just gossip and hearsay. . . . I didn’t know anything about realpolitik, about the cruelty of it.’’

Cahill speaks by phone from Utah, where she’s a resident playwright with the Salt Lake Acting Company, which debuted “The Persian Quarter’’ this year. She lived in the Boston area for years while working at WGBH, and she still writes host introductions for “Masterpiece’’ and reads scripts for possible production.

Days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11 would seem to be a fraught time to open a play about relations between the United States and the Islamic world. Both playwright and director say they held that aside, though, while working on it.

“I’m curious to see what discussions will follow from that, but I’m not trying to predict and I’m also trying not to worry too much about it,’’ Fabel says.

“This is just the world we live in now,’’ Cahill says. “Our engagement with the Middle East is the primary conflict of our time. It used to be the Soviet Union, remember? But [9/11] was not in my mind when I wrote it. I was really just trying to understand my own experience.’’

Mini dance classes

On Sunday, check out the fall open house at the Dance Complex in Cambridge, with 20-minute mini-classes in everything from flamenco to salsa. (Suggested $1 donation.) It’s part of the center’s 20th anniversary celebrations, which include performances by Zoe Dance tonight and tomorrow. 617-547-9363, www.dancecomplex.org

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

THE PERSIAN QUARTER Play by Kathleen Cahill

Directed by: Kyle Fabel. Presented by: Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

At: Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, Sept. 15-Oct. 9. Tickets: $24-$60. 978-654-4678, merrimackrep.org