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Mona Mansour's emotional colloquium of a play "We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War" draws much of its appeal from the warm relationship between its two main characters. Their conversations make up most of the action, which takes place mainly in an arena for academic argument — a graphic band of green chalkboard arcs behind the playing area — and in the far more ambiguous realm of the sea.
That these two characters are a woman in her early 40s identified only as She (Sara Nina Hayon) and her nephew He (Joshua Chessin-Yudin) is itself a pleasant surprise. Tall, lanky Hayon strikes a delicate balance between no-nonsense elder and highly sensitive peer, while beaky Chessin-Yudin effectively conveys a youthful layering of swagger over anxiety.
It's so rare to see detailed representations of this particular familial bond that this world premiere, by Golden Thread Productions at the Potrero Stage, feels refreshing from the get-go. She and He clearly enjoy each other's company, both as friends and family. During her occasional visits to San Diego, where he lives with his mother (her sister), they take pleasure in intellectual arguments, but are cautious about hurting each other's feelings.
She identifies as Lebanese-American; he as an ROTC student, then later a commissioned U.S. officer preparing for deployment to the Middle East. While not aware of any extended family in Lebanon, She is unsettled by the notion that he may have to "kill people we are related to." He is a generation and a father's genes further from their Arab heritage than she is, and with slight trepidation feels proud and prepared to take on whatever American mission he is asked to pursue.
The duo's tenderly contentious discussions of politics and philosophy take place during long, dog-paddling ocean swims. The saltwater provides a buffer zone between them, along with a raft of idiomatic functions. They tread water in trying to advance their arguments, they don't want to drift apart, they struggle with bottomless controversy, they are at sea. "The Pacific" is ironic. When a fog settles in, obscuring the beach, their uncertainly is articulated as, "Shore no more!" Mansour, too much!
While the playwright's conceptual elbow is oversharpened in these scenes, director Evren Odcikin and an impressive design team (Kate Boyd, scenery; Cassie Barnes, lighting; Mona Kasra, projection; Sara Huddleston, sound) soften its impact with a poetic visual approach. The flat green of the chalkboard takes on depth beneath a palimpsest of projected waves and the ambient sound of tides. Hayon and Chessin-Yudin glide about on backless rolling chairs in these aqueous passages, feet never touching the stage. The inventive effect, coached by movement specialist Slater Penney, is lovely but distractingly crotch-forward when the characters backfloat.
Tre'Vonne Bell as The American and Adam El-Sharkawi as The Arab have commanding stage presence, but their brief roles are not so much flesh-and-blood characters as tools that She uses in support of her arguments. While She and He both make references to American military action in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, they don't tackle political specificities. Despite being partly set in a seminar room, the play's strength is not in the realm of intellectual education. "We Swim" is most successful in demonstrating that a balance between gently swimming around issues and bluntly talking can keep loving family members from going to war with each other.
Through Dec. 16. Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., SF. Tickets ($28-$38): (415) 626-4061, www.goldenthread.org