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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 15, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Leading Lady for `Attacks on the Heart’

This is my fourth Arthur Laurents play," says Turkish-American

actor Cigdem (pronounced chee-dam) Onat, who is starring in the prolific

86-year-old playwright’s latest work, "Attacks on the Heart."

The play’s world premiere production opens on Friday, October 17,

at George Street Playhouse under the direction of David Saint.

Onat is no stranger to George Street or to the plays of Arthur Laurents.

Two seasons ago, she played the title role in Laurents’ "Claudia

Lazlo," which also had its world premiere at George Street. A

Theater World award-winner and Drama Desk nominee for her performance

in the Lincoln Center revival of Laurents’ "The Time of the Cuckoo,"

she also appeared last March in Laurents’ "Two Lives," at

the Lyric Stage in Boston. During our pre-rehearsal chat at the theater,

she laughs demurely when I suggest that she is obviously Laurents’

leading lady of choice.

"It was almost a mystical experience when we first met during

auditions for `Cuckoo,’" says Onat. "I knew very little about

Laurents. But as soon as we shook hands I had the sense that I was

re-meeting someone I already knew. He was very formal and somehow

reminded me of Proust. I was suddenly in another time and I had to

blink."

What was Onat to think after Laurents told her he experienced a similar

feeling? Subsequently when Laurents gave Onat the script for "Claudia

Lazlo" to read she said to him, "You wrote this for me."

Actually Laurents had already written "Claudia Lazlo" before

they had ever met, but such was the feeling that Onat felt for the

character she was convinced it was written for her. So what was Laurents

left to do but sit down and right a play especially for Onat. And

that play is "Attacks of the Heart."

The play focuses on a love affair between two people of diverging

backgrounds, an American man and a Turkish woman living in New York

City, following the events of September 11. The plot is compounded

by the increasingly mysterious circumstances surrounding the death

of the woman’s son. In the play Leyla (Onat), and Beecham, an American

documentary film maker played by Alan Rachins (most famously known

for his role as the hippie father in the TV sitcom "Dharma and

Greg"), test their love affair as they reveal their differing

world views, religious backgrounds, and political opinions.

About her character Leyla, Onat says, "I know her very deeply,

as I am also a Middle Eastern woman who is extremely westernized.

I understand Leyla as a woman who has rebelled and made some very

difficult choices, which is not very typical." Like Leyla, Onat,

who was raised without religion, says her values have their roots

in Islamic culture. Like Leyla, Onat may not be defined by one culture.

Onat talks enthusiastically about the history and development of modern

theater in Turkey. With the exception of the traditional shadow play

and puppets, theater as dramatic literature was virtually non-existent

until the Turkey became a republic.

Progress began in 1839 with the proclamation of the Tanzimat (a decree)

that led to the formation of a National Theater and encouragement

for contact with western theater. The establishment of the Republic’s

constitutional government (Mesrutiyet) in 1923 would subsequently

pave the way for a legislative act in 1940 to provide support for

state theaters in Turkey.

The first playwrights were Ottoman. Unlike the great tradition of

the Greeks and Europeans, Turkish theater, although receptive to the

canon of international classics, has only in the last century been

nurturing Turkish artists to create their own theatrical identity.

One of these artists is Onat, a world-renowned actress, who has been

a notable figure in bonding distinct cultures. Onat assures me that

if I went to Istanbul or Ankara I would see the same classics that

are being staged in London, Paris, and New York, as well as works

by contemporary Turkish writers.

As a former leading lady with the State Theater of Turkey, Istanbul,

and the Istanbul City Theater, Onat has typically appeared in numerous

classical plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Pirandello, the Greek tragedies,

as well as such contemporary roles as Sally in "Voice of the Turtle,"

Helena in "Look Back in Anger," Anna in Harold Pinter’s "Old

Times," and Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Onat

returns to Turkey for special engagements such as, in 1994, when she

returned to play Virginia Woolf in the one-woman show, "A Room

of One’s Own."

"The state has a mission now to be very supportive of the arts

and to contribute a lot of money," she says. Onat, who was not

formally trained as an actor, was educated at an American school —

Roberts College — in Istanbul where she earned her degree concentrating

on writing and drama. In 1957, while still attending Istanbul University,

Onat became a member of a small troupe of young artists who organized

the first theater and art festival ever presented in Turkey. Onat’s

sister Sebnen Akan, a British and American-trained dancer (Juilliard),

founded the dance program at Istanbul University, where she has been

instrumental in bringing modern dance to Turkey.

One might expect that the Greek tragedies would have

a unique, even disturbing, resonance among the Turks, many of whom

were unfamiliar with seeing women as provocateurs and enablers. Onat

says she didn’t know what to expect when she played the title role

in "Medea," the first ever production in Turkey at the Istanbul

City Theater. When the artistic director heard about Onat’s intention,

she said, "Are you sure? She kills her children." "Oh

yes, I am sure," was the way Onat responded to the director’s

strong reservations.

"The interest was such that tickets were being sold on the black

market," says Onat, who recalls how the audience screamed and

yelled in approval as well as shouted the accusation — "cruel!"

— at her. Onat was vindicated by the public’s response. "They

demonstrated an enormous respect for the play, and an understanding

of Medea’s betrayal and passion," she says. "Medea" came

at the right time for Onat. "At 25 I was a star and bored with

the theater," she says.

Boredom didn’t last long for Onat who, as a guest actor and director,

staged and appeared at major European theaters and festivals. While

living in Strasbourg with her husband from 1963 to 1971, Onat honed

her directing skills at the Conservatoire de le Centre de l’Est in

France. Convinced now that she had to commit and express herself in

the theater and not just as an actor, Onat came to the U.S. in 1971

after an invitation to participate in an assistantship program at

the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Earning her MA was not enough, however. Onat entered into the doctoral

program in comparative literature under the tutelage of the critic

and philosopher Eugene Falk. Onat is currently on the faculty of the

North Carolina School of the Arts, where she teaches acting and directs

— and also may be the leading lady of choice.

— Simon Saltzman

Attacks on the Heart, George Street Playhouse, 9

Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for

the premiere of Arthur Laurents’ drama about the love between an American

man and a Turkish woman. David Saint directs. $28 to $52. Friday,

October 17, 8 p.m.<

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