It’s hard to make drama - rather than melodrama - out of genocide. If sentimentality doesn’t overrun your theater piece, anger is apt to. Or it all turns into propaganda. Joyce Van Dyke’s “Deported,’’ which is getting its world premiere from Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and Suffolk University at the Modern Theatre, doesn’t entirely avoid propaganda as it attempts to address the Armenian genocide of 1915. But for the most part, art trumps politics - thanks in no small part to the feisty performance of Bobbie Steinbach in a role modeled on Van Dyke’s Armenian grandmother.
Directed by Judy Braha, “Deported’’ opens in 1938, in an attic in Providence. There’s a wooden table and chair, and a wicker basket with a quilt, and an old-fashioned radio, and a woman’s black hat with a plume and a rose, and a lantern, and a steamer trunk. And water can be heard dripping. The lights go down, and when they come back up, a middle-aged woman is lying on the table and a younger one is sitting on the steamer trunk. “Take my water,’’ the older woman says. A panel in the back wall (which appears to be covered with aluminum foil) opens and an Armenian line dance threads its way across the stage. Then the voice of the older woman’s husband intervenes, and she scrambles out of the Old World clothing she has put on just in time for them to argue about whether their daughter can go to a party and why dinner is not on the table promptly at 6 p.m.
“Deported’’ is subtitled “a dream play,’’ and for much of its 100 minutes (there is no intermission), you may wonder whose dream it is. The older woman, Victoria (Steinbach), is a survivor of the genocide; so is her friend, Varter (Jeanine Kane), but both women lost their husbands and their children. And though Victoria is living in Providence in 1938, with a new husband, Harry (Ken Baltin), Varter is part of a dream world in which figures from their village in the old Ottoman Empire pop in and out, from Mr. Nazarian (Robert Najarian), whom Varter marries at 14, to the Turkish gendarme (Baltin) who tells the women, after their husbands have been taken away, that they are being “deported’’ (that is, sent on a death march) to Syria.
The second act is set 40 years later, in Los Angeles, where Victoria and Harry have moved. Shoshana Epstein (Liz Hayes), representing a university oral-history project, has come to interview Victoria. This part is about Turkish denial and Armenian reluctance to remember, and both are depicted somewhat heavy-handedly.
In the third act, however, Van Dyke is at her dizzyingly whimsical best. The year is sometime after 2015, and Victoria appears to have died and gone to Armenian heaven. Or maybe she’s still dreaming. She shoots a Turk named Cem (Mark Cohen), but he turns out to be the grandson of a Turkish officer who fell in love with Varter and saved her, so he doesn’t die. Besides, he thinks it’s his dream, not Victoria’s. Victoria’s great-grandson, Matthew (Najarian), shows up and falls for Shoshana’s daughter, Ruby (Hayes); we learn why Victoria’s daughter Rose (Kane) is so disaffected from her mother. There is, if not reconciliation, at least renewal, along with the suggestion that heaven is really just the ultimate theatrical production.
Most of the actors here are double and triple cast, and if they barely differentiate among their roles, that just adds to the oneiric effect. But it’s Steinbach who grounds “Deported.’’ When she says, “When you kill people like that, they live forever,’’ you know it is not just a dream but also a nightmare.