What to take, what to leave behind?

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By Doug Deuchler

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The lovely, highly energized Minita Gandhi is amazing to watch. Unlike many performances in the one-woman show genre, her vivid production of Muthaland is colorful and always provocative. The actress, who was born in Mumbai, India, but grew up in California, presents her touching, deeply personal story at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn. I predict Gandhi's autobiographical play will be another sold-out hit for the company. She is both an outstanding Chicago playwright and a dynamic actress.

Director Heidi Stillman tightly focuses this remarkable 90-minute show. There is no intermission.

The play begins by bridging the cultural and generational gaps that are often experienced by the children of immigrants. Her South Asian parents are loving but often stressed when their traditional values come into conflict with their modern, liberated daughter. Minita wants to become an actress. She is unwed in her mid-30s. The dialogue is frank and often hilarious. Her mother freaks out when she discovers her daughter's vibrator. 

Minita re-enacts many phone calls with her parents. 

"You children are our lives!" they continually reassure her.

Her relationship with her father seems to unfold and evolve, perhaps more than with her mom. She is especially touched when she discovers an old suitcase that her dad brought with him from India on his first trip to America.

 Her stories, all threaded together, flow into one another. There are no awkward transitions. This material has clearly been "workshopped" and fine-tuned a great deal.

 Gandhi creates a dozen individuals who are distinctly portrayed without change of costume. She does her character shifts with seamless, quick transitions using her voice or a switch of accent or dialect.

 Minita Gandhi's quest for independence and self-reliance depicts how her life was forever changed on a trip to India. She ultimately discovers her voice after she unearths family secrets. She gains fulfilling insight into her family history, especially her parents' own arranged marriage, which included conflicts with difficult in-laws.

 There is a beautiful, lively sequence when Minita does a Bollywood-style dance at her brother's wedding in India. 

 Muthaland is a story of love and hope, trauma and forgiveness. It's a positive and moving story about self-identity. We see her experience failed romances and confusion in her choice of goals before she ultimately comes to a solid sense of strength and self-assurance.

 The lighting, designed by Cat Wilson, is virtually another character in the show. It changes the mood at times, further creating new feelings or shifts in tone.

 The set is simple. There are few props and only one old-style straight chair. But Gandhi does such a superb job of clearly, distinctly setting her scenes we imagine a full and busy setting.

 Lavia Jadhwani is the dramaturg, Barry Bennett designed the sound, and Christopher N Tisone is the stage manager. Costumes are by Wendy Stark Prey.

 Muthaland, a new play that's warm and funny and painful too, is extremely well performed and directed. The writing is thrilling and vivid. I found myself thinking about this new show for the next several days, which to me means this is a solid production that offers much to ponder and think about.

If you go:

See Muthaland at The 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th St., Berwyn, on Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays at 5 and 8 p.m. through Oct. 7.

Tickets: $22; $18, Berwyn residents or low-income individuals. 

Contact: 16thstreettheater.org, 708-795-6704

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