You’ll have to set aside a goodly chunk of time — and for some, your preconceptions — to navigate all the compelling twists of “The Vagrant Trilogy,” Mona Mansour’s passionate, rewarding account of a Palestinian poetry professor buffeted by the disasters of statelessness.
Mosaic Theater Company, the little outfit with huge aspirations that has brought pulsating theatrical energy to the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, links Mansour’s slyly interconnected trio of plays in an absorbing, sometimes funny world premiere, under the canny directorial guidance of Mark Wing-Davey. And in the riveting performance of Hadi Tabbal as Adham, an ambitious academic of poignantly wavering self-belief — and unreliable documents — the production has its charismatic touchstone, a necessity in a work beseeching you to experience it as your most open-minded self.
Mind you, Mansour, an American dramatist of Lebanese descent, has not written a self-serving tract. Polemics tend to be a central character in a lot of the drama about contemporary Israel and the Palestinian territories. But this isn’t agitprop. The drama emanates from an accessibly emotional journey, in which all roads lead to pain.
Which is why, it seems, the playwright warns you upfront, in the program, that Parts 1, 2 and 3 “are not sequential. They are different possible versions of Adham’s life.” That they share some vital narrative facts — as in Adham’s marriage to Abir (Dina Soltan), a spirited mate more conflicted than Adham about relinquishing family and custom — helps to unify the trilogy. Though I guarantee you that after the final sequences of the 3½ -hour production, you’ll be sorting through the events of the plays as if they were puzzle pieces scattered on your kitchen table.
“It’s complicated,” warns one of the introductory surtitles over the set in Atlas’s Lang Theatre. (Parts of the plays are in Arabic, with projected English translations.) This applies to the evolving story, which takes Adham from the turbulent moments just before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War that established Israel’s expanded territories, to London, where he secures a teaching fellowship, to a refugee camp in southern Lebanon in 2003. The admonition also corresponds to Adham’s academic life, as a scholarly interpreter of the poetry of William Wordsworth, the 19th-century English Romantic whose work carries a host of thematic resonances for Adham’s own nomadic story. Adham wanders lonely as a cloud, too, although his permanent rootlessness rarely resolves itself in the sort of pastoral bliss that enraptured Wordsworth.
One of the rich, tense undercurrents of “The Vagrant Trilogy” — and there are quite a few — is the excruciating gap that exists between Adham’s intellectual thrall with an English writer and his goal of being accepted fully by the Western world. In the moving Part 2, which is titled “The Vagrant” and set in London in 1982, Adham has to deal with the appalling contradiction of his plight. Brought into the literature department because he’s exotic and proof of a university’s liberalism and tolerance, he also finds himself under suspicion for those very reasons, after a terrorist attack on British soil by the Irish Republican Army — a group having nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
Mansour deftly integrates such expository elements into a deeply human and, yes, complicated story, on a resourcefully mobile set by Luciana Stecconi, accessorized by Paul Deziel’s nimble projections. Of the three parts, the first, “The Hour of Feeling,” feels the least polished, possibly because it has so much plot to establish, and the final episode, “Urge for Going,” though powerful, is also the most labored, as its central concern is numbing and frustrating stasis, a fact of life for the eternal refugee.
That Wing-Davey successfully mounts Mansour’s sprawling tale with a mere six actors is a wonder, and thank goodness he’s cast it so well. Tabbal and Soltan embody with the requisite intensity the amusing tempestuousness in all of the permutations of Adham and Abir’s relationship, and the gifted Nora Achrati superbly traverses a gallery of challenges as everyone from a feminist English professor to a restless Palestinian teenager. Elan Zafir, Shpend Xani and Michael Kramer fill out a range of supporting roles with an impressive versatility. And Ivania Stack’s costumes ably evoke the disparate eras and places to which Mansour takes us.
It is the softer but no less brutal edges of a tragedy that Mansour sketches for us. Barely do we hear the explosions that we know are being ignited all around her characters. And yet we feel the compressions all the same in a story that, for all of its suggestions of alternative endings, always leads in the direction of suffering.
The Vagrant Trilogy, by Mona Mansour. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey. Sets, Luciana Stecconi; lighting, Reza Behjat; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound, David Lamont Wilson; projections, Paul Deziel; associate director, Sarah Blush. About 3½ hours. $20-$65. Through July 1 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. mosaictheater.org or 202-399-7993 ext. 2.