‘Paradise’: A student and mentor teach each other

Caitlin Nasema Cassidy and Barlow Adamson in “Paradise.” A.R. Sinclair Photography

CAMBRIDGE – A student in search of a mark.

That’s how it all begins in the Underground Railway Theater’s world premiere production of Laura Maria Censabella’s “Paradise” at the Central Square Theater.

A Muslim-American teen yearns for 37 points on a biology test that may eventually help her win a college scholarship, and that become a metaphor for larger truths and theories that will be explored over the course of the production.

“Paradise” starts with the story of the teen and her teacher/mentor and ranges far afield in its portrayal of two multi-layered characters whose lives interact and intersect in many different ways during the course of their relationship

The setting is a faded, worn science lab in a run-down Bronx high school (perfectly rendered by Jenna McFarland Lord) where Dr. Guy Royston (Barlow Adamson) unhappily presides. He rages against the noise in the hallway, attaching nasty notes to students’ homework when he is interrupted by the entrance of a young student named Yasmeen al-Hamadi (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy)

She is downcast at having scored a 63 on a recent test, a score she says threatens her efforts to score the perfect 4.0 GPA she feels she need to get a scholarship.

Balow Adamson in “Paradise.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

She wheedles and bargains with the reluctant teacher, finally getting her way when she reveals she has read his book, citing examples and passages.

Yasmeen is pious, observant of traditional Muslim customs, wearing the hijab and long sleeves and leggings to cover herself. She is also funny and feisty, her personality emerging and shining through in her negotiations with the teacher. She is also curious about the world of science and eager for Royston to help burnish her scientific credentials in an effort to snag a Columbia University scholarship set aside for a woman of Middle Eastern descent.

“I’m a very surprising person,” she says at one point.

The question everyone in the theater is asking a few minutes in is: What is Dr. Guy Royston — a noted researcher with published work – doing teaching biology in this particular high school?

It turns out he has turned his personal life into a train wreck, with a divorce and then another messy breakup, and then an even messier threat to a colleague. The fallout has seen him banned from the hallowed halls of Columbia University and left him toxic and essentially blacklisted from collegiate positions.

Playwright Censabella, through her characters, touches on several topics, notably including the absence of woman in general from most STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields and the obstacles many women face in getting into the fields. Then there’s the innate conflicts between the reasoning of scientists such as Royston and faith-based belief such as Yasmeen’s.

At one point in a discussion between the scientist — an agnostic/atheist who has shaken off his upbringing in a conservative part of Virginia – and Yasmeen, a woman of faith, she asks him if he believes in hell.

He smiles ruefully and surveys his surroundings. “I am in hell already.”

It also becomes clear that the tenets of her religion may very well require her to put aside her dreams of a career in science in favor of an arranged marriage and a husband who may not approve of her career choice.

There are other obstacles to her career, Yasmeen notes as she wavers over whether she will pursue her dream. Some Muslim women have run afoul of “boaters” – recently arrived immigrants who take note of young Muslim women seen talking too often and too closely with men who are not family members or their intended husband. They run the risk of having their reputations ruined, or in extreme cases being forcibly sent back to their homelands.

So when she starts to spend signifcant amounts of time in the teacher’s office, she is risking reputation and even possibly her life.

Together, the teacher and the teen embark on an experiment involving the neurological aspects of romantic love, using as subjects volunteers from the school itself, who fill out surveys and later agree to have their brains scanned.

There is give-and-take as the pair appear to be closing in on a scientific discovery that could be of great value to both of them.

After all they have been through and learned from each other, they are ultimately two very changed people. In time, Yasmeen will ask Dr. Royston to make a wrenching decision, one that may lift her up while continuing to consign him to the back lot of a Bronx high school. What will he do?

Censabella has authored a tightly-constructed two hours, although it wanders about a bit towards the end of the second act.

Director Shana Gozansky coaxes strong performances from her principals and the pacing and staging are spot-on, as “Paradise” never gets too stagey and static as some two-handers do.

“Paradise” has URT again enlisting the support of the Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT, which supports science-themed plays and encourages new works with scientific themes.

The relationship between the university and the Underground Railway and Nora theater companies has resulted in a series of smart, engaging, well-thought-out and skillfully-presented productions and “Paradise” is right there at the head of the list.

The Underground Railway Theater world premiere production of “Paradise.” Directed by Shana Gozansky. At the Central Square Theater through May 7. centralsquaretheater.org