Review by Sean McQuaid
Letters to My Grandma
Watermark Theatre, North Rustico
October 18, 2023
Indo-Canadian artist Anusree Roy has been a producer, director, film/television screenwriter, university professor and opera librettist; but before all that, she was an actor turned award-winning playwright who penned the 2008 one-woman show Letters to My Grandma, recently revived by PEI’s own Watermark Theatre. The play features a hopeful young Indo-Canadian woman named Malobee who immigrates from India to Canada in her teens, staying in touch with her often-sour grandmother back in India via letters and phone calls until a family quarrel tears their long-distance link asunder.
Like Malobee’s Grandma, Roy’s Indian grandmother had survived civil and religious strife during the 1947 partitioning of India and Pakistan; and like Malobee, Roy herself had immigrated to Canada from India with her family in her teens. Roy has described this play as “a piece that was completely organic, completely from the heart, from the soul,” and she starred in the early productions of it herself.
Roy and her characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, so their choices can feel a bit predictable; of course the open-hearted Malobee embraces a wider world while still loving her family, and of course her stern mother offers well-intentioned caution, and of course her gruffly traditional grandmother lobs oft-unfair criticism from her telephonically ringside seat back in India, like a one-woman transatlantic Statler & Waldorf. Some of this almost writes itself.
But that’s just the narrative skeleton of the piece, which Roy fleshes out with engaging specificity, like the little details of how Malobee adapts to Canadian life while wondering if she’ll ever stop feeling like an outsider, or the often alarmingly bigoted attitudes of Grandma.
Is the titular Grandma a loving matriarchal figure who’s lived through horrific adversity? Yes. But as flashbacks ranging from her 1947 partition odyssey to her more recent elderly days reveal, Roy’s take on this darkly fascinating character is neither idealized nor sanitized. Grandma’s got layers, and some of them aren’t pretty.
Her 1947 misadventures almost depict the character as an antiheroine—relentlessly deceitful, pledging ever-shifting loyalty to whoever or whatever might save her skin, capable of vicious opportunism and ruthless betrayal; granted, she’s protecting her baby as well as herself, but take away the kid and she plays like a distaff version of uber-treacherous weasel Beni Gabor from The Mummy (1999). Put another way, the 1981 neo-noir Body Heat could have been describing Grandma with this line: “That was her special gift. She was relentless… the kind of person who could do what was necessary. Whatever was necessary.”
That dark side of Grandma, and how her anti-Muslim bigotry helps the play explore enduring Hindu-Muslim tensions spanning decades and continents, makes this a more interesting, less predictable story with elements of both racism and redemption. It’s still a bit thin with a total running time of just 60 minutes, but Roy packs a lot of sparks into that scant span and the show’s emotional climax ultimately feels earned.
Watermark’s production is directed by Rahul Gandhi and stage managed by Samantha Bruce with sound design by Rehan Lalani, set/costume design by Khushi Chavda and lighting design by Emily Soussana, starring Asha Vijayasingham in a quadruple role(!) as Malobee, her mom, her grandmother and Grandma’s long-suffering Muslim nurse.
Gandhi, Lalani, Chavda and Soussana help signal Vijayasingham’s many character, scene and time period changes via quick alterations of light, sound and costume, rendering all this intelligible (and particular kudos to Chavda for the inventive and visually striking choice of papering the entire stage with a layer of letters, such that the whole play almost literally rests on the foundation of the Malobee-Grandma correspondence); but the MVP of all this has to be Vijayasingham, whose versatility and unflagging energy elevate the whole show with ample charm, dramatic chops, comedic flair and lots of personality—all four of them.