Playwright Jan Balakian

‘Dreams on Fire’: PTSD Meets the Armenian Genocide in Jan Balakian’s Stirring New Play

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NEW YORK — “Dreams on Fire” starts off from a controversial scientific hypothesis that has gained momentum in recent years. According to the emerging field of epigenetics, trauma can not only be passed down intergenerationally; it can also be transmitted at the somatic, molecular level in our DNA. The first idea explains why certain cultures that have faced repeated persecution — Jews and Armenians for example — can sometimes appear overly anxious or neurotic to the society at large. Understandably if your parents lived through the Shoah or the Aghet, you may worry about the future more, fret over and even smother your own children with attention. But I’m less convinced that this form of anxiety can be transmitted at the mitochondrial or cellular level. Pushed to the extreme, this line of thinking could also be used to exonerate the perpetrator as well as the victim of trauma if the former’s family also has a history of excessive trauma.

Be that as it may, “Dreams on Fire” is an important play for bringing issues of mental health to the theatrical fore. The main character, Aram Sarkisian (Sam Arthur), attends an unnamed college where he has amassed four incompletes as his exam period rolls around. Aram has a close relationship with Gran (Constance Cooper) who recounts their family history during the Armenian Genocide. Arthur displays all the signs of classic PTSD: depression, passive aggressiveness as well as dark spells when he either does not remember his behavior or chooses to forget it. At one point he abandons his love interest Emily (Emma Giorgio) — who just happens to be Turkish-American — mid-date. Gran realizes that something is up and takes him to see a doctor who diagnoses him with severe ADHD: she prescribes both medication and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

To her credit, Balakian gleaned much of her information from actual doctors in the field: “I heard Rachel Yehuda, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai speak on NPR. Dr. Eric Hollander, a leading neuroscientist, confirmed that it was a mature field.”

This may be the case, but on a literary level, using epigenetics as the basis for one’s narrative can be tricky. In her 2021 New Yorker piece, “The Claim Against the Trauma Plot,” Parul Sehgal problematizes the issue at hand: “Unlike the marriage plot, the trauma plot does not direct our curiosity toward the future (Will they or won’t they?) but back into the past (What happened to her?).”

Sehgal goes on to argue that trauma has become the default mechanism for many writers, creating an altogether poorer narrative than in the past — when everyone from Shakespeare to Virginia Wolf merely suggested or alluded to details from their characters’ lives, using their descriptive and linguistic talents to suggest character development. Sehgal explains

“In the 1924 essay ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,’ (Wolf writes) that ‘all novels begin with…a character who awakens the imagination. And here Woolf, almost helplessly, began to spin a story herself — the cottage that the old lady kept, decorated with sea urchins, her way of picking her meals off a saucer — alighting on details of odd, dark density to convey something of this woman’s essence…Those details: the sea urchins, that saucer, that slant of personality. To conjure them, Woolf said, a writer draws from her temperament, her time, her country.”

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Sehgal concludes her essay by appealing for a richer array of subtler narrative options: “The trauma plot flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and in turn instructs and insists upon its moral authority. The solace of its simplicity comes at no little cost. It disregards what we know and asks that we forget it, too — forget about the pleasures of not knowing, about the unscripted dimensions of suffering, about the odd angularities of personality, and, above all, about the allure and necessity of a well-placed sea urchin.”

Nora Armani

“Dreams on Fire’s” specificity and strength is to place the trauma narrative within the context of the Armenian Genocide. We have few plays that discuss the Genocide at all — Richard Kalinoswki’s “Beast on the Moon” stands out among them. Due to COVID-19, Dreams on Fire was presented as a Zoom reading by Kean University and still awaits a full production, so it will be interesting to see which direction it takes. Balakian’s writing is fluid and her dialogue enticing, especially when Aram finds himself alone with either Emily or Gran. The sections of the script spent with the doctor/psychiatrist (both energetically well-acted by Dalita Getzoyan) and the ending could be shortened.

The Kean reading was more than ably directed by Nora Armani, who coaxes strong performances from her cast despite the difficulties inherent in the form: “It’s very difficult to show an audience what a play will really look like from a reading like this,” Armani commented: “You need twice as much directorial ingenuity.”

Indeed on several occasions the performances jolt the placid viewer sitting at home to attention, especially in scenes where Aram suffers a breakdown or traumatic attack. In a Zoom reading, casting can paradoxically play a more important role than in a staged production since actors must rely solely on their delivery to get across the playwright’s intentions. They have no sets or costumes or clever contrivances to aid their performance: it’s just them, their scripts, and the camera. Dreams on Fire was also masterfully narrated by assistant director Donna Heffernan.

Balakian teaches English Literature at Kean, so she knows better than most people about university life and its many stress points: “Aram was a depressed, anxious college student,” Balakian explains: “I started writing a play about a college student’s struggle with mental health. That’s what I wanted to write.“ Yet Balakian, the granddaughter of Genocide survivors, found that her own family trauma played repeated literary interference with her writing process: “Somehow images from the Armenian Genocide kept appearing…which made for a more interesting story than a straight up mental health play.”

The playwright’s brother, Peter Balakian, documented this trauma in his best-selling 1998 memoir Black Dog of Fate: “The fact that my grandmother saw her family murdered in 1915 during the Genocide was pivotal. She escaped with her two daughters — my aunts Lu and Glad — and fled to the US. That kind of trauma registers deeply in the nervous system. My mother was a teenager when Pearl Harbor happened and had a complete breakdown. That must have impacted her.”

Balakian’s mom was classically overprotective: “She’s like the father in Philip Roth’s Indignation,” the playwright added: “He constantly worries that something will happen to his son. In my family, wherever you go, mom’s phone call follows you. So the Gran in the play is really a representation of my hypervigilant mother.”

Balakian also used her own literary scholarship and research in writing “Dreams on Fire”: “My study of Arthur Miller’s use of Expressionism in ‘Death of a Salesman’ helped me construct the flashbacks.”

Equally important perhaps in “Dreams” is what is left incomplete. Surprisingly this is perhaps the most universal theme in the play. In America we live in a very bizarre society that wants us to be afforded every personal liberty yet remains surprisingly puritanical. We base a person’s worth almost entirely on their ability to reach sometimes unreachable goals (marriage, childbearing, financial success), and on a certain timeline. Balakian explains: “In one way or another, we all have incompletes — something we have not finished or quite figured out. Academics happen to work in a profession where they get paid to fill out forms every semester, but for most people there is no form. But there is the frustration of the incomplete task, which we can always finish, as Aram does. Sometimes, though, it takes more than a summer.”

As Balakian noted, we do indeed all have incompletes. “Dreams on Fire” brings many important issues to the stage. If the playwright and director can just streamline scenes to emphasize the play’s main themes, they should have a real winner on their hands. Now about those sea urchins….

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