Sometimes a Giant Tube Worm is not just a Giant Tube Worm.
Consider, for instance, the exotic deep-sea creature described in the opening scene of “Soft Revolution: Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah,” a smart, character-rich two-hander by Australian dramatist Alana Valentine. While rehearsing a presentation for her biology class, a talented university student named Shafana discusses the bizarre physiques and metabolisms that allow life-forms to thrive a mile and a half beneath the surface of the ocean. Much later in the play, now on view in a largely creditable production by Venus Theatre, in Laurel, the topic of marine fauna recurs, and by this point, the imagery has acquired metaphorical weight. An animal like the Giant Tube Worm — which apparently grows and thrives without eating — seems to symbolize the mystery of faith.
The delicacy of the semiotics here — the correlation between spirituality and deep-sea critters registers in passing, without overemphasis — typifies the able craftsmanship in this 90-minute drama, which has been performed in Australia. Directed here by Venus Theatre founder Deborah Randall, “Soft Revolution” explores the relationship between two brainy, opinionated Afghan-born Australians. The 23-year-old Shafana (Nayab Hussain) has long had a friend and champion in her aunt, Sarrinah (Meera Narasimhan), an accomplished mechanical engineer who has struggled to reestablish her career in Australia after escaping the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Muslim faith is just one of many things the two women have in common. But when Shafana decides to begin wearing a hijab, she is startled to find herself at odds with her aunt. As aunt and niece banter and argue — over a traditional Afghan dinner, which appears to be cooked onstage and is shared with the audience in the lobby afterward — they broach nuanced yet passionately held beliefs about identity, Islam, tolerance, self-determination and life in a multicultural society. Also tumbling into the open are painful memories, including Sarrinah’s vivid recollection of nearly suffocating during her flight from Afghanistan in a refugee-packed bus.
In a nice directorial choice, the action plays out on a modest set (kitchen, university lab) that divides the audience into two segments, allowing theatergoers, in a sense, to share the characters’ experience of self-consciousness, exposure and division. As the storytelling flashes forward and back, Amy Rhodes’s lighting design helps keep temporal boundaries distinct.
The U.S. premiere of “Soft Revolution” feels all the more resonant because it happens to closely follow the election of Donald Trump, whose campaign rhetoric included threats to temporarily close America to Muslim immigrants. But if timeliness is a plus, the production’s principal asset is Hussain, an actress with an assured stage presence who makes the shrewd, determined Shafana seem complicated, real and engaging.
By contrast, Narasimhan’s portrait of Sarrinah is a little stiff, and that quality sometimes rubs off on the production as a whole. Still, the actress clearly establishes the aunt’s abundant wit and whistle-in-the-dark stoicism. During that biology presentation, rehearsed in Sarrinah’s presence, Shafana describes tiny deep-sea shrimp that live near gushing mineral vents. The shrimp flourish, despite teetering “on the edge of a steaming hot, poisonous soup that threatens in an instant to consume, cook or toxify them,” Shafana proclaims dramatically.
“Life can perversely defy expectations,” her aunt quips.
Venus Theatre, 21 C St., Laurel, Md. 202-236-4078. venustheatre.org.
Dates: Through Dec. 18.