BEIRUT: After nearly 30 years of marriage, Joumana (Aida Sabra) is weary. The spark of excitement that lit her relationship with her husband has been lost in the details of everyday life.
The play “Min al-Akhir” (Bottom Line), which was penned by and stars Sabra, strips the sanctified public performance of marriage to lay bare all the doubts, quarrels and deceptions, the unending household chores, exhaustion and frustrated aspirations that drive a wife and husband apart.
“Things were not like that,” Joumana reminisces of her early married life. “We used to be different.” She recalls the start of their relationship, when her husband would take her out to parties where she could dance and have fun.
Sabra specializes in inhabiting the bodies of her characters and, like a stand-up comedian or a storyteller, she employs intense physical activity to bring Joumana to life. Complementing her onstage exertions are Marilynz Youssef Aad and Elie Njeim, who participate in the onstage action and also adjust the set as the play progresses.
“Min al-Akhir” opens with a quarrel. While preparing for a ceremony to honor her husband, Joumana is struggling to choose the right dress for the occasion. Her husband laments that her dawdling will make them late for the festivities. Calling her an “old lady,” he storms off, slamming the door behind him with an air of finality.
The exchange awakens Joumana to the state of her marriage, which is not as perfect as it might seem from outside. This reverie provokes a monologue on the secrets of daily married life. Running her fingers over her face as if trying to track her wasted days in her wrinkles, the 40-something character wonders whether she really has grown old.
Joumana’s rhetorical tone suddenly shifts, and she begins mocking the medal that her husband is about to receive.
“He spent his life running after medals and honorary ceremonies,” she sneers, “as if we got any financial gain from such achievements.”
It’s Joumana who kept the household standing, who always came up with solutions to the financial shortcomings of a couple with limited income. She abandoned her own ambitions as an athlete to become a social worker, believing this would be better for her family.
She criticizes the daily strain of life in Lebanon, a country that devours its citizens’ energy but never recognizes or rewards their sacrifices. “If he had won this medal abroad,” she says, “things would have been different.”
This is not the only element of social critique in Joumana’s monologue. She mocks the split personality of Lebanese individualism, which is also a facet of her own problems.
She derides men’s cliché search for a “wife and a lover,” the double standards of husbands who find excuses to cheat while expecting their wives to remain faithful.
Joumana recalls how her best friend, a celebrity, told her of a married man who hit on her, then proceeded to wake her up with midnight phone calls, threatening to commit suicide because he could no longer stand the burdens of marriage.
While trying to lure her into a rendezvous at his “private apartment,” he tells the young woman: “I promise I won’t do you any harm.” The man then professed to love his wife – the best way to avoid any sign of commitment to the girl he was trying to seduce.
The anecdote recalls another man, this one an “educated” poet who used the same line on a woman half his age. When she does not respond to his advances, he accuses her of being “old-fashioned.”
Joumana’s sex life reflects the monotony of her life more generally. Where once the couple could not wait to “devour” one another, they now sleep “miles apart” on the same bed. Worse, the husband would take a separate room, but the couple’s finances make this impossible.
Joumana doesn’t see herself as blameless. It may be, she thinks, her suspicions are simply a projection of her own insecurities. If she still took care of her once-athletic body, perhaps she wouldn’t have doubts about her husband cheating on her.
The wife is jarred from her reverie by her husband’s voice.
“Joumana,” he calls. “You’re still not ready?”
“He’s still here,” she says. “He did not go without me.
“I’ll be ready in a second,” she calls back.
She puts on a dress he once said he liked and hurries out to join him for the ceremony.
The key to breaking out of this marriage dilemma, Sabra implies, is love. Love seems absent from her life today, so much so that she’s become nostalgic for the Civil War years, when “there was love and fear made us stick to each other.”
“Min al-Akhir” is a straightforward exposé of the routine of loneliness and insecurity that follows the elaborate public performance of marriage, with its white dresses, tuxedos and parties. Sabra’s play can also be read as an invitation for married couples to revive and refresh their lives together, if only for the sake of the decades of memories made and lives shared.
“Min al-Akhir” (Bottom Line) is staged in Arabic at Metro al-Madina every Monday at 10 p.m. until the end of April.