'Brimful of Asha' brims over with charm and fascinating cultural questions

A scene from "A Brimful of Asha."

It's difficult to describe "A Brimful of Asha." Wait, that's not entirely true. It's easy to find words to describe the delightful Spoleto show: charming, heartwarming, funny, informative and yes, delightful. What's difficult is coming up with a way of describing the Why Not Theatre of Toronto's transplant as a theatrical experience. It's not quite a play.

There is one table, two chairs, a monitor for photos and videos, and two performers, who tell a simple story to the audience. And that story is an exploration of the relationship between parents and children, the differences between generations, and a view into the familial obligations and customs of Indian society.

"A Brimful of Asha," making its American premiere, is the story of Ravi Jain, curator and artistic director of Why Not and creator/director of this piece, and Asha Jain. She is Ravi's mother, and joins him onstage in the retelling of a specific chapter of their lives.

Ravi, in 2007, has finished school and is looking to start a theater company. His parents wish only to see him married, immediately. They begin the process of finding suitable girls. Ravi wishes to live his own life, pursue his career and find love on his own terms. This is unacceptable to his parents and family. The pursuit of a wife takes over his planned trip to India in the fall of that year, and becomes a whirlwind adventure as he navigates the increasingly awkward and embarrassing attempts by his family (and the family of one potential bride) to see him married before his trip ends.

Ravi is captivating and engaging as he recounts this very real event from his past. The embarrassment and anger are often incredibly fresh on his face, almost seven years later, threatening to melt his incredibly charming smile. He's that present in the memory.

His mother, Asha (for whom the play is named; her name means Hope), is by her own admission no actress. She's just a mother, taking this opportunity to tell her side of the story and prove her son wrong in front of sympathetic witnesses. It's impossible not to find her charming, loveable and hilarious. Soft spoken and demur, almost shy even, she steals the show from her actor son. The crowd (almost all parents and grandparents the night I saw it) was certainly on her side in the conversation.

That conversation is both fascinating and very real. It's the same conversation that's been had between many parents and many children in every generation. Do our parents, who want what's best for us, really know what that is? Asha's answer to that would be yes, and always. Can you decide whom to love, and would you be happy if you could? Ravi would disagree. It's up to you to make your own decisions here, but it's fun watching someone else have to wrestle with that question for a change.

And it's infinitely more interesting through the lens of a completely different culture. Asha is from New Delhi, India, and her son was born in Toronto, Canada. Mother and son are separated by generational and cultural differences. Asha gives us insight and lessons of the customs of marriage for Indian people, what is expected of families and her own life story as it pertains to marriage and family. She contends that love is a process of discovery, it is built with a person, creating a family that becomes a much deeper love.

It's hard to see how you can get there through the parade of uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, grandparents and parents who have to attend the initial meeting of two young people who have never met and who are expected to immediately be tethered for life.

There isn't a right or wrong answer presented by the show, just this family's story. What is present is the love they share for each other. It's there on the stage. Ravi, the experienced, award-winning performer, serves as an encouraging safety net for his inexperienced mother (her only previous experience is the run of the show in Toronto in 2013). She warns us at the start of the show that she may stutter or pause because she's not an actress. She did neither and was perfectly wonderful (if occasionally a little inaudible).

But the show (I dare not call it a play, plays don't fly this free) speaks loud and clear. In just about 90 minutes it introduces us to a world and custom we may not be entirely familiar with, and shows us our very lives.

Michael Smallwood is an actor in Charleston.