Sukanya Sarkar has experience navigating awkward meet-the-family scenes involving romantic partners, but coming to Juneau means she’s trying to cope with that clash of personas in a far more confined setting.
Sarkar, a Calcutta-born actor now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, plays the mother in that family dynamic in the upcoming staging of “A Nice Indian Boy” scheduled to open at Perseverance Theatre on Dec. 1. She performed the same role in theaters in the Bay area and Houston, both of which had much larger single-level stages in contrast to the small multi-layer venue at Perseverance.
“It’s a new play altogether, you’re looking at it in a different way altogether,” she said during a break in a rehearsal Tuesday. Combined with a different director than the previous productions means “it’s a completely different experience. There’s no similarity except the lines.”
But Sarkar said she’s discovering the smaller stage had advantages.
“This has been very interesting because there are layers,” she said. “And it’s also a very intimate setting, which is even better to act in.”
“A Nice Indian Boy,” a 2014 play written by Madhuri Shekar, features the character of Naveen Gavaskar bringing fiancée Keshav Kurundkar home to meet Naveen’s parents and sister, who are shocked not because he’s gay — but because Keshav is white and raised by Indian foster parents who adopted him.
While that suggests the play is “a gay rom-com,” it’s really about a much wider range of topics, said Vinita Sud Belani, the founder and artistic director of EnActe Arts, a Bay area contemporary theater nonprofit producing the Juneau staging of the play in collaboration with Perseverance.
“There is this whole thread of how is the white person more Indian than I am?” she said. “And reverse discrimination. Then there’s this whole thread of are arranged marriages still happening in South Asian families and what is really the definition of arranged marriage? And how much can you blame your parents for (stuff) that’s happening in your life? So there are many themes. And I wanted to highlight each and every one of them so each scene builds to a certain crescendo.”
Belani was a producer three times for the play staged previously by her company, but has not been the director as she is at Perseverance. She said that’s allowing her to approach the different stage in Juneau with a different artistic as well as physical approach.
“I had to sort of set my priorities and this is a play where, like most drawing room dramas, there isn’t a whole lot of action,” she said. “So you have to find ways of just keeping the audience’s attention every single minute of the play. Which means that you can’t have long scene transitions, you can’t make the audience wait for anything. So I had to split the stage up into spaces of action that were independently accessed and we didn’t have to wait for them to be transformed into something else.”
Also essential was the cultural elements of the play, since Belani said the stated mission of the production company she founded a decade ago “is to tell South Asian stories with universal appeal.” She said when approached by Perseverance Theatre’s artistic director Leslie Ishii about staging “A Nice Indian Boy” it was largely Ishii’s “commitment to cultural authenticity” that motivated Belani to accept.
“I wasn’t 100% sure that I would be able to take six weeks completely out of my life,” Belani said. “I have a husband, I have kids, I have grandkids, there’s Thanksgiving, there’s Dev Diwali, there’s all these other festivals. But in that first and second conversation with Leslie I found something that I had been looking for a while, and I had not seen, which was this commitment to cultural authenticity and the humility in the face of the work that has been presented. And for me that was just beautiful and I felt like this opportunity, in that respect, was a gift that Leslie was giving to me.”
A nationwide casting ensued, with the roles of Naveen’s mother going to Sarkar and his father to Dilip Ratnam — another Indian-born actor who performed the same role with Sarkar in productions in the Bay area and Houston.
“I think that we already have a chemistry from the previous productions,” Sarkar said.
The lead characters of Naveen and Keshav went to Tristan Cameron and Jack Scholz, respectively, both of whom are locally active in the arts community.
“We decided that we would cast Jack and Tristan because Perseverance at the end of the day serves the Juneau community,” Belani said. “And we wanted local representation for the two lead characters. So that was a requirement that they come from from Alaska. And we would have liked to cast the third — the sister — also from Juneau, but we couldn’t find an Indian girl or a South Asian female living in Juneau in this age group. Nobody auditioned from Juneau or from Anchorage or from Fairbanks.”
The role of the sister is being played Aditi Sanghavi, a New York actor whose experience includes film shorts and a TV miniseries in addition to the live stage.
Music for the production is from the longest-running movie in the history of Bollywood — the 1995 release “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge,” which is still showing — described by Belani as “very iconic and very special.”
“I worked with the music composer to create variations of the three theme songs to fit all the moods,” she said. “So in the moments that we do have to make transitions the music just pulls one scene into the other. So from that point of view it’s a very tight production.”
Among the challenges of staging the play in Juneau was ensuring the necessary Indian artifacts are available.
“We had to ship everything from my previous production here,” she said, noting plenty of extra time was allotted for the mailed items to arrive.
As for being in Juneau during December, Ratnam said that, like Belani, he responded a bit dubiously at first about spending weeks in a climate far different than India and the California coast. But during a break in Tuesday’s rehearsal, a day after experiencing a blizzard that caused citywide disruptions, he said he has no regrets about accepting the role.
“It’s been like four weeks now and I have enjoyed every single day of it,” he said.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 957-2306.
Know and Go
What: “A Nice Indian Boy”
Where: Perseverance Theatre, 914 3rd St., Douglas.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29, pay-as-you-can preview; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16; 4 p.m. Dec. 3, 10 and 17.
Tickets: $35 Thursdays and Sundays; $45 Fridays and Saturdays. Can be purchased online at www.ptalaska.org/ticketing. Shows on Dec. 3 and Dec. 7 are pay-as-you-can at the door.
Video on Demand: Available Dec. 13-Jan. 22.