In just the way a 9-year-old might think a big problem could be wished away with colored pencils and glitter, Anu Yadav conjures a whimsical brainstorm as little Meena, the heroine of her promising solo show, “Meena’s Dream.” Her chronically sick single mother too poor to refill a desperately needed medication, Meena takes matters into her own hands by drawing her own abstract idea of a prescription and handing it to a perplexed local pharmacist.
It’s one of several interludes in the world premiere of Yadav’s 90-minute monologue at Forum Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., that movingly evokes the mind of a child trying to stave off misfortune. Although the piece needs tightening and a firmer control of its narrative voice — is Meena our guide here, for instance, or is Yadav? — “Meena’s Dream” opens us up in the manner of an endearing after-school special to an insular world of immigrant struggle and innocent escape.
Yadav, with her elegant dancer’s limbs and buoyant bearing, is a pleasing host for an evening that surveys the challenges Meena faces at home, where her hard-working, South Asian-born mother can’t pay the rent, and at school, where she’s taunted mercilessly by another girl. Warmed by the music of Anjna Swaminathan on violin, Rajna Swaminathan on percussion and Sam McCormally on guitar, the story is a catalogue of Meena’s coping mechanisms, fantasies she concocts that are grounded in tales of Hindu religious figures, sci-fi explorers and ninja warriors.
Meena constructs for herself elaborate trials and quests, some of them arising from her daydreams and often at the behest of Lord Krishna, who appears to her as an overconfident mentor and bearer of lofty metaphors. In her bedroom, festooned by set designer John Bowhers with linen suspended like hovering spirits, Meena talks to Krishna about stopping the advance of the “worry machine,” a task that will take her on fantastical adventures to the Ocean of Sadness and the Forest of Deception. These are, of course, poetic distillations of the fear and uncertainty rampant in her daily life, an existence that provides few of the comforts a lonely girl might desire.
Yadav embodies all the characters and, most poignantly, Meena’s exhausted mother, engaged in some kind of demanding shift work and plagued by breathing problems that may cause her to pass out at any instant. Meena has memorized the procedure for calling medical help, a routine as harrowing in its way as the monstrous figures who wait for her in her dreams. A grace appends to Yadav’s portrayal of the stoic mother, who sees to Meena’s upbringing with patience rather than resentment.
A problem with “Meena’s Dream” is that the material feels a little thin at the production’s current length. Just as your friends have very limited patience with the recounting of your dreams, an audience gets a bit antsy with Meena’s involved accounts of her imaginary exploits. Far more bracing are the sequences that document Meena’s dealings with the real world, as in her confrontation with the druggist or her nemesis at school, who turns out to be a far more sympathetic character than we’re initially led to believe.
Yadav and director Patrick Crowley, who clearly has helped the actress to unleash the full force of her ingratiating personality in Forum’s flexible performance space, might want to examine who is telling the story of “Meena’s Dream.” The perspective wanders: We experience some of the proceedings from Meena’s point of view, some from the actress’s. And then, at one of the evening’s dramatic high points, we segue to Meena’s mom, alone in a bathroom, venting about her troubles. The blurriness weakens narrative cohesiveness.
The mother’s moment is undeniably powerful, a sensation amplified by a recognition that “Meena’s Dream” gives voice to the troubling conditions of some Americans from a part of the world we don’t see enough of on stages. The sense of edification, of being exposed to the shapes and squiggles on another fragment of the national mosaic, is affirmed when Meena holds up to the audience the picture she’s drawn for the pharmacist, with all its sparkle and color.
Written and performed by Anu Yadav. Directed by Patrick Crowley. Music, Anjna Swaminathan, Rajna Swaminathan, Sam McCormally. Set, John Bowhers; lighting, Sarah Tundermann; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound, Thomas Sowers; choreography, Paige Hernandez. About 90 minutes. $20 to reserve tickets, pay what you like at the door. Through Saturday at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Visit www.forum-theatre.com.