The misleading thing about buying Indian garam masala at the supermarket is the implication that garam masala is one specific item. It's actually a blend, and every Indian cook has his or her own recipe. So it is with Sue Townsend's sharp comedy The Great Celestial Cow, now making its American premiere at TheatreFIRST. British playwright Townsend throws several different spices into her masala -- monologues, dream sequences, women turning magically into cows, a snippet of Bollywood musical -- creating a story about an Indian family living in Britain that blends warmth, satire, and sadness.
The play opens in India, circa 1977. Raj has been working in Britain for five years, and he's finally in a position to send for his wife, Sita, and their children, Bibi and Prem. But the extended separation has wrought permanent changes. Sita has gotten used to being head of the family, and the children barely recognize their father. Raj, meanwhile, has had five years of his mother and aunt catering to him. Add to the mix the fact that Sita becomes "Anglicized" more rapidly than Raj and trouble seems inevitable, but Townsend -- whose contemporaries in the Joint Stock theater company include David Hare and Caryl Churchill -- manages to avoid pathos while offering an honest portrait of a family in turmoil with a definite feminist slant.
Townsend doesn't let up on the non-Indian, non-Pakistani British. At best, they're portrayed as well-meaning but clueless, as with a hippie couple who try to befriend Sita and the children as the latter huddle miserably on the floor at Heathrow. "We have been to India!" intones the woman. "You are my sister!" At their worst, the natives are definitely not friendly -- a produce seller chases Sita off because she's handling the oranges, calling her a "dirty Paki" and confirming a fear she'd expressed in India that British people would say "Here comes another dirty immigrant with her children and her bucket."
Rica Anderson and Sandra Schlechter, who had great chemistry together as sisters in Central Works' Every Inch a King last year, are back as Sita and her raucous co-worker Lila (the versatile Schlechter also plays another half-dozen roles). In Sita, Anderson manages to capture both an understated strength and the creeping sadness of a woman who has spent her life doing things for other people. She also makes some incredibly terrifying faces.
Ruchira Shah is the rebellious daughter Bibi. She's smart, sassy, and independent-minded, which gets her in trouble when it's time to find a nice traditional husband. The visit from Mr. Singh and his shy plaid-wearing son is very funny -- Shah plays the moment with relish, as Bibi details her attributes to her mother's amusement and the horror of everyone else present. Shah and Rishi Shukla as Bibi's brother Prem both portray their characters at several different ages, and their thinly veiled sibling warfare is well-played. Prem goes from being merely irritating as the privileged son to surly and uncertain as a grown man; Shukla handles the transition well, especially near the end, when Prem makes a revelation about his mother.
Cow seemed to ring true with Indian audience members the night that I went; the laughter of recognition was full and frequent. Audiences less familiar with Indian culture should find the details fascinating -- a swirling stick-dance honoring a goddess, the customary humiliation of a groom-to-be by his family, even the reactions of the womenfolk when they learn that Bibi is getting her first period ("keep her away from the food!"). There's a lot here as well about how immigrants perceive their adopted country and how they feel about the decision to live amongst strangers. "Was it worth losing our culture just so we could play with Western toys?" asks a troubled cleric, a question familiar to immigrants of all flavors.