A richly theatrical mother-and-son memoir in ‘Avaaz’ at Olney

Playwright Michael Shayan plays both a single Jewish woman immigrating from Tehran to Los Angeles and her queer American-born son, himself.

By Morgan Pavey

Avaaz begins the second you round the bank of seats in the Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. The set, exquisitely designed by Beowulf Boritt, seems to appear by magic as festive Persian music surrounds you at party volume. It’s a feast for the eyes: hanging mirrors framed by fairy lights and flowers, an opulence of chandeliers, lush golds and greens, and a marvelous, multi-tiered table set for a grand event. As audience members entered with a chorus of wow’s, I was already leaning forward toward the story, full of curiosity.

The play, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel and written and performed solely by Michael Shayan, centers around an Iranian woman named Roya as she waits for her son to come home for Nowruz, the Persian New Year holiday. She passes the time by generously offering the audience a crash course in the history of Nowruz and Persian culture, using the centerpiece on the Haft Sin table as anchor points for lessons. These humorous teachings fuse with memories of her journey as a single, Jewish woman immigrating from Tehran to Los Angeles, including what it was like to raise her queer, American-born son, Michael. This Michael is the playwright, Michael Shayan, and Roya, whom he plays, is based upon his real-life mother.

Michael Shayan in ‘Avaaz.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Avaaz delivers a dual memoir in a format that is richly theatrical and warmly educational about a culture we don’t see enough of in American entertainment media. While Roya’s stories will resonate differently depending on your specific upbringing, her experiences with immigration, family, home, motherhood, queerness, and perseverance create touchstones for audience members of all backgrounds. As such, Shayan has threaded the needle in creating a piece of theater that is both intimately specific and universally rewarding.

Shayan’s writing is masterful in depth and scope. He deftly guides the script through teaching moments, individual stories, and highly entertaining bits of audience interaction. It was not uncommon for belly-shaking laughter to still into sober silence, only to be prodded into smiles again with a well-timed jab. Farsi and dance were interwoven throughout the text, amplifying the richness of the tale. This variety in storytelling moments was greatly supported by the lighting design of Amith Chandrashaker, which helped immerse us in memories and lead us out again to the present.

Shayan’s skill as a performer was most apparent when he would switch in and out of his portrayal of Roya. When a memory called for a different character, his sudden drop into a new voice, body posture, or accent was instant and complete. The stark transformations revealed just how thoroughly he had embodied Roya in a performance that felt more like channeling than impersonation. His movement was also excellent, especially his moments of dance.

My only acting criticism is a technical one, wrapped up in the daunting challenge of executing a one-person show. Carrying a 90-minute performance monologue without any cast members or breaks to assist with remembering your text is a phenomenal feat. Each performer uses different tools to achieve this, and I felt that Shayan occasionally relied too much on internal cues or pre-set rhythms to get himself through.

This internal cueing resulted in some moments that felt lacking in the spark of life that occurs in a spontaneous conversation. It is a subtle difference, one between knowing the answer to a question before you ask it and really waiting to hear the audience’s response, but it was just enough to make me feel unsure what Roya really needed from us in order to keep speaking at times. This was most noticeable in the beginning of the performance and often short-lived; toward the middle and end of the evening I found myself entirely swept away by Roya’s tales.

Michael Shayan in ‘Avaaz.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Because I began with the majesty of the set, I must note how well I believe this show would work in an entirely different style of theater and even performed by a different actor. The true mastery of what Shayan has created lies in its ability to transcend performer and space. While this particular set lends undeniable grandeur, Shayan’s writing is both grand enough to play in an 800-seat proscenium and intimate enough to suit a 25-seat black box in the round. And while it is an undeniable treat to watch the playwright perform, the concept and writing are strong enough to be fully inhabited by another actor to perhaps an equally powerful effect.

Avaaz is a brilliant addition to Olney Theatre Center’s season, one that proves their strength of programming and remarkable willingness to produce trend-setting work. They will be supporting this production after it leaves Maryland, heading for two tour destinations. I can’t help but feel this is only the beginning for Avaaz as a traveling story, and look forward to seeing it produced by theaters of all sizes and communities for years to come.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Avaaz plays through April 7, 2024, at Olney Theatre Center, Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Tickets ($55–$90) are available online or through the box office at 301-924-3400, open from 12 pm to 6 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students (for details click here).

Credits for the cast and creative team are online here (scroll down).

COVID Safety: Face masks are recommended but no longer required to attend events in any Olney Theatre Center performance spaces.

Morgan Pavey received her MFA from the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting in 2020. Although no longer performing, she remains a happy theatergoer and arts advocate. She currently lives in Maryland and splits her working time between hospitality and freelance writing.


Written and Performed by Michael Shayan
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Set Designed by Beowulf Borrit
Costume Designed by Joshua “Domino” Schwartz
Lighting Designed by Amith Chandrashaker
Sound Designed by UptownWorks – Noel Nichols, Daniela Hart, and Bailey Trierweiler


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