At the Victory Gardens Theater


By Dan Zeff


Chicago-Stories about ethical and moral dilemmas make for absorbing drama. The playwright puts characters in a situation where they must take sides on an issue that (1) may negatively affect their personal and professional lives if they go one way, or (2) let them off the hook if they compromise their integrity by choosing the other side. The choices may seem easy to an audience not in the shoes of the characters under the gun, but black and white turns very gray when the consequences are personal, and agonizing.

          That’s the general setup of “Queen,” Madhuri Shekar’s engrossing little play receiving its world premiere at the Victory Gardens Theater. The story on the surface explores how industrial abuses are threatening our environment, but the main interest comes in how the two main characters deal with a potentially disastrous problem of their own making.

          Two young women, Sanam and Ariel, are working on their Ph.D degrees and seem to be on the threshold of publishing research that will make their careers in the closely knit and backbiting academic world. The woman are researching the reason why bees are disappearing at rates so alarming that the implications may affect the future of humanity (bees are crucial to sustaining the world food supply). Their research paper has been accepted for publication by the most prestigious magazine in their field, assuring their professional futures. But just days before their discoveries are scheduled to be announced at a major academic conference, they discover that their findings contain a flaw that invalidates their conclusions.

        What to do? Asking for a delay so they can reconfigure their research is out of the question. They can withdraw their project, with probable lasting damage to their careers, or they can juggle their findings to mask the flaw with nobody likely the wiser. For Sanam, the  the decision, though painful, is inescapable. Her integrity is paramount. Ariel, potentially has more to lose, being a single mother with far fewer financial and social resources than Sanam.

                                                                                                                       Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

          “Queen” runs about 90 minutes without an intermission and much of the time is devoted to the debate between Sanam’s demand for absolute integrity, no matter what the eventual fallout, and Ariel’s plea for compromise. The compromise view is advanced by Dr. Philip Hayes, the students’s academic advisor, who has much on the line in the research project. A fourth character is an investment broker named Adam who is wooing Sanam and confidently urges her to abandon her high ethical stance and join the real world, where compromises are made all the time and no harm done.

        The outside observer may righteously insist that the ethical approach is the only honorable path, whatever the consequences. But that’s being a hero on somebody else’s time. The playwright allows the voices of compromise some wiggle room. Is scientific truth really only an abstraction? If the two women cook the research books, are they actually doing any damage to their environmental cause? Their flawed research could possibly still being valid at its core. And come on, can two graduate students really make a difference in a battle with an industrial juggernaut like Monsanto? Besides, the Monsanto pesticide is already under a cloud and may still be discredited without the flawed research. And what if the pesticide isn’t so villainous. What if the bees are disappearing because of global warming, or disease, or air pollution?

          In addition to the science controversy, there are also matters of friendship, now under tremendous stress, between the two women. Then there is Sanam’s romance with Adam, which could lead to the woman’s finally settling down. But if she doesn’t alter her high road stance, her pragmatic lover will walk. The battle to save the environment is addressed, but for me that was only a byproduct of the main storyline. The play is all about the confrontation between keeping scientific truth untainted and the argument that there is no harm in taking a less dogmatic approach to survive in a competitive world where truth is often treated as a concept that exists in the eye of the beholder.

          So Shekar has compressed a lot of challenging issues into her intimate play. As emotions heat up between the two conflicting viewpoints, attentive viewers will be anxious to see how the playwright resolves her narrative (no spoiler alerts here. See the play to learn how Shekar wraps up her story).

                                                                                                               Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

          Director Joanie Schultz deftly builds the rising tensions. She is favored by an excellent quartet of players, led by Priya Mohanty (Sanam) and Darci Nalepa (Ariel) who both give performances of conviction and realism, playing credible real people facing a life changing dilemma. Arvind Patel is effective as Sanam’s wooer, a bit of a lecherous slime at the outset of the play, growing into an articulate spokesman for the compromise wing of the argument that many viewers will find persuasive. Stephen Spencer rounds out the fine ensemble as the professor who turns vicious when the students threaten to undermine his academic turf with their research problems.

          Designers Chelsea Warren (scenery), Janice Pytel (costumes), Heather Gilbert (lighting), and Thomas Dixon (sound) have created the appropriately minimalist environment.

          Although “Queen” is a world premiere it is in fine shape as it now stands and should go forth into the regional theater world as a popular selection. The economics favor the show, with the small cast and modest physical demands. There is some pretty dense scientific discussion in the script, but they don’t blur the play’s narrative heart. Both sides are given a fair hearing, though the viewer may initially believe that there is no contest between Sanam’s demand for truth and Ariel’s self interested cry for compromise. It turns out to be not so simple.

          “Queen” runs through May 14 at the Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $60. Call 773 871 3000 or visit


 The play gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at:                         April 2017

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