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"This is a story told on a Persian carpet ... an invisible carpet in which we are both the weavers and the threads."

So says 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. Then, taking a digital camera from his pocket, he snaps a picture of the audience.

With those parameters laid bare, playwright Kathleen Cahill and the cast of Salt Lake Acting Company proceed to deliver on Rumi's words.

The floor of history leading toward the future becomes visible. The traps and unseen treasures of misunderstanding write themselves in vivid dialogue between two women — one an American hostage during the 1979 crisis, the other an Iranian prison guard — and grow more fevered when their daughters inherit their warring differences decades later over a photo shoot of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University.

And true to Rumi's photograph of the audience at the play's beginning, we see ourselves as complicit in events that shape human relationships.

Born out of Cahill's time teaching English to Iranian women in 1976, "The Persian Quarter" is an audacious piece of theater that pulls out all the stops to give us the fullest possible tapestry of its subject. Her reliance on the poetic figure of Rumi to segue her play's scenes and buttress its context is audacity verging on recklessness, to be sure. Talk to other playwrights about using, for example, William Butler Yeats to frame a drama on the Irish troubles. Then watch them run for cover. That Cahill pulls it off at all is testament to her prowess, already decorated with the Edgerton Foundation 2010 New American Play Award for this very work.

Salt Lake Acting Company's world premiere production Friday took its mid-tempo opening at pool side, with Nell Gwynn and Josh Thoemke playing Ann Gillies and Mike, respectively. Both are ostensible U.S. State Department employees in the American compound in Tehran, with Mike already wary that U.S. officials will err over Iranians' discontent with the Shah. Both are vexed by Iranian ways, even as they're amused by and even somewhat respectful of them. Iranians, after all, are so taken by their national poets that grocery stores and restaurants are named in their honor.

"I'd like to see a chain of burger joints in the U.S. named after Walt Whitman," Mike says.

"Americans aren't poetic. We're prosaic grim realists," Ann reminds him.

Grim reality arrives when Ann is held hostage by Iranian students loyal to the Islamic revolution. Her overseer Shirin, played near pitch-perfect by Deena Marie Manzanares, is polite to the point of annoyance. What annoys Shirin most is Ann's ignorance of history, in particular the 1953 U.S.-led coup of Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, which ushered in the religious persecution of the Shah that claimed her brother, a poet.

The two talk past each other in scene after scene in lines that conflate the comic and profound until Ann despairs. She dreams of "a woman writing in a circular cell a letter about a woman who is in a circular cell writing a letter ... the process never ends and no one will ever be able to read what she writes."

Rumi, played in expert turns of restraint and jubilance by Shane Mozaffari, is the spiritual heir and comic relief above it all. He's witness to poetry's power, and its limitations. He's also the play's moral center. Beware, he says, "the rider who gallops all night, and never sees the horse that is beneath him."

If "The Persian Quarter" seems a tad too triumphant at its end, it's easily forgiven. With the protests in Egypt leading some to question yet again whether the Middle East can be trusted with freedom, Cahill's play is an urgent reminder that the best art doesn't come from a domestic echo chamber, but the larger canvas of a wider world. Miss this essential play at your own peril. —

"The Persian Quarter"

P When ยป Through Feb. 27; Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday 2 and 7 p.m.

Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City

Info • $15-$41; call 801-363-7522 to reserve, or visit

Bottom line • A serious, yet humorous, take on the consequences of history and culture through the eyes of four characters that will rank among the best productions, local or otherwise, of the year. Two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission.

More • SLAC will host a free panel discussion, "U.S.|Iran, Patriots|Poets, Pilou Rice|Apple Pie" on Feb. 13 at 5 p.m., aimed at exploring the United States' relationship with Iran. Moderators include Rasoul Sorkhabi, director of Rumi Poetry Club; playwright Kathleen Cahill; co-founder of Equality Utah, Jim Dabakis; and University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless.