In ArtsEmerson’s “A Brimful of Asha,” a mother wants her child to be something he’s not. In SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Pink Unicorn,” a mother wants her child to not be something they are.
And the offspring? What they want, unsurprisingly, is the freedom to be themselves. It’s a bumpy journey for everyone concerned in this pair of streaming productions.
The title figure in “A Brimful of Asha” is Indian-born Asha Jain, and the something she wants her adult son Ravi Jain to be is married. Indeed, Asha and her husband so fervently desire to see Ravi in a state of wedlock that they decide to personally take over the job of finding their son a bride when he makes a trip to India from Canada, where the family had immigrated decades earlier.
Mother and son play themselves in “A Brimful of Asha,” and they co-wrote the loosely structured two-hander, which finds comedy, friction, and occasional poignancy in the competition between Asha and Ravi to persuade the audience to see the story from their point of view.
“I am not an actor,” Asha confesses early on, and that is clear throughout the performance, which was recorded in Toronto in 2014 and helmed by Ravi Jain, who is the founding artistic director of the Toronto-based Why Not Theatre.
But Asha’s artlessness actually works to the production’s advantage. She never seems to be reciting lines, merely expressing her true self, and that self is consistently endearing, not least because of the combination of bashful pride and mischievousness in Asha’s smile when she gets off a one-liner at her son’s expense.
Ravi Jain has the more thankless task of exposition, and the strain sometimes shows in the hectic energy of his performance as he gesticulates and remonstrates while his mother sits, hands serenely folded in her lap. Years after the events in question, there is still incredulity in his voice as Ravi describes the lengths his parents were willing to go in order to bring about an arranged marriage for him.
How extreme? A partial list of their efforts on Ravi’s behalf included arranging surprise get-togethers with the families of potential brides, where Ravi was grilled on how much money he made and why he didn’t go into his father’s business rather than the financially unstable world of theater; procuring “biodata” to gauge compatibility; and even taking out an ad in an Indian newspaper informing readers that their son was looking for a mate (it generated 150 responses).
The intergenerational tug-of-war between Asha and Ravi in “A Brimful of Asha” is mostly leavened with mutual affection, but it’s also firmed up by mutual resolve. Ravi is battling against a tradition he wants no part of, and Asha is doubling down on a tradition she can’t let go of. Over the course of the play, it becomes clear that it’s partly because that tradition makes her feel more connected to her native India, and partly because of her bone-deep conviction — one worth pondering by her son and the rest of us — that love is not something you fall into but something you build over time.
In SpeakEasy’s online production of Elise Forier Edie’s solo play “The Pink Unicorn,” Stacy Fischer portrays a widow named Trisha Lee, who is left reeling when her teenager, Jo, announces they are genderqueer.
This triggers a tempest in the small Texas town where Trisha Lee and Jo live. Matters grow heated when Jo tries to form a Gay-Straight Alliance in the local high school. As Trisha Lee privately struggles to accept Jo’s identity, the mother’s eyes are opened to the full scope of the intolerance in her community. The family is subjected to ostracization, harassment, and threats, but Trisha Lee also discovers that allies can be found within the ranks of a few tenacious local figures opposed to that bigotry.
Fischer has repeatedly proven over the years that there aren’t many acting challenges she can’t meet, excelling in works as various as “Distracted,” “Insignificance,” and “Hysteria, or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis.” She needs every ounce of her considerable skill to thread her way through Edie’s unsubtle, preachy script and find a multidimensional character there.
The playwright’s message about the non-negotiable importance of accepting difference is inarguable, obviously. But you’re too conscious of that message as each designated villain is trotted out in “The Pink Unicorn” to say their predictably prejudiced piece, from the pastor at Trisha Lee’s church to the principal at Jo’s high school to Trisha Lee’s extravagantly reactionary mother.
Trisha Lee’s comebacks are also too often predictable. When her mother says “Whatever happened to traditional American values?,” you can almost deliver Trisha Lee’s rejoinder before it’s out of her mouth: “I don’t know, Mama. I thought equality for all was a traditional American value.”
For all that, Fischer still finds ways to transcend the formula of set-’em-up-to-knock-’em-down, still finds ways to move us. Sometimes with the slightest tremor of expression, she lets us see the battle playing out on Trisha Lee’s face between deep confusion and anxiety over Jo’s identity — and the fierce love for her child that will eventually resolve that battle.
A BRIMFUL OF ASHA
Written and performed by Ravi Jain and Asha Jain. Directed by Ravi Jain. Production by Why Not Theatre. Presented online by ArtsEmerson. On-demand streaming through March 22. Tickets: Free to $100. www.artsemerson
THE PINK UNICORN
Written by Elise Forier Edie. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Starring Stacy Fischer. Streaming production presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company through March 18. Tickets: $30. www.SpeakEasyStage.com