The Shelter of Love

The Shelter of Love

Richard Kalinoski’s intimate account of Armenian genocide comes to NY

The horrors are planted so deep, they all but wreck the marriage before it begins for Aram Tomasian and Seta, the child bride that Tomasian, as she calls him, had imported from Istanbul to Milwaukee in 1921. It was in fact another girl’s photograph that had been sent to him—he himself, Aram Tomasian, was an up-and-coming photographer in Milwaukee—but Seta wasn’t bad looking, she was quiet, so she’d do.

Except for the nightmares. When Tomasian saw his wife driving nails into the arms of her doll, he thought she was crazy. But then it came out. Seta found her tongue. “My mother nailed into wood—crucified by the Turks—because she would not forsake her God! My sister raped. Because I was a child, I was left.”

And then it also came out, from her husband, her stiff strange husband, who cut the heads off his family photographs. On another day, back in that other country, he had run from his hiding place, a hole in the floor, out into the backyard where his mother had a clothesline for the wash, and on that clothesline the Turks had hung the heads of his mother, his father, his sister, his brother, everybody.

Ninety years ago this month, on April 24, 1915, a genocide that would result in the deaths of a million and a half Armenians at the hands of the Turks began—the slaughter that Hitler cited as prelude to his own. Yet, who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians?

On April 27, the New York City premiere of a play called “Beast on the Moon”—having to date been seen in 17 other countries and some 45 American cities—takes place. The piece is now in previews at the Century Center for the Performing Arts, on East 15th Street.

It’s a play about the Armenian genocide. But apart from all the horrors, the man who wrote it wants to stress, this is a love story—Aram and Seta’s story—showing what people can make of their lives even with all these horrible things.

The writer’ name is Richard Kalinoski, and his own blood, he said the other day, is “one-half Polish American, about one-quarter Irish, some German in there, and some other stuff I don’t know.” Nothing Armenian. But from 1972 until a divorce in 1979, Kalinoski was married to an Armenian-American woman from Racine, Wisconsin, whose grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915.

“Her grandmother was a sweet, charming, compelling woman who spoke Armenian and had herself been a child bride of 14 or 15, ostensibly plucked from some orphanage in Istanbul,” Kalinoski recalled. “She had struggled in her own life, against a dictatorial husband, for the opportunity and the right to learn to read. I like to think an image of her lives on in Seta.”

Back in 1972, Kalinoski—“wanting to explore what I call courage in the face of the beast, especially the courage in some women to cope quietly, and sometimes not so quietly”—had, on the basis of interviews with members of his then-wife’s family, written a “very different, very much more literal” play about the Armenian genocide. It was called “Lifeline,” but it did not have a life.

In 1991, when Kalinoski was teaching playwriting and English at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, a colleague who read that earlier play and “had said to me: ‘There’s something powerful there, maybe you should revisit these people.’”

Kalinoski conducted as many interviews as he could with thoughtful Armenian Americans in Rochester—“a small community with only one church, and not even a church building”—and came up with the central dramatic idea of a child bride.

He also started reading: Michael Arlen’s “Passage to Ararat,” Franz Werfel’s “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” the dispatches of Hans Morgenthau, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, and poet Peter Balakian’s “The Black Dog of Fate.”

The actors in the New York premiere are Omar Metwally, Louis Zorich, Matthew Borish, and, as Seta, Lena Georgas.

About the crucifixion of Seta’s mother:

“Lots of survivors have told how the Turkish gendarmes liked to make examples out of Christians, and there is evidence of crucifixions. I would not say it was common,” Kalinoski said, “but I have seen photographs of it. Also of decapitations.”

How come it has taken “Beast in the Moon” so long to get to New York?

“Well, we could do a whole interview about that. Just let me say that along the way I had some terrible offers, where I would not be part of the artistic process. So I said no, a lot. Some were so bad, it was easy to say no. Though I desperately wanted New York.”

Two people who have been instrumental in bringing it here are co-producer David Grillo, who fell in love with the show when, as an actor, he played Aram in a 1998 New Repertory Theater production in Newton Square, Massachusetts, and director Larry Moss, who, said the playwright, “in launch week of rehearsals here proved to be a source of epiphany and revelation in everything regarding the play.”

Kalinoski has never yet been to Armenia, but he is going there soon, to Yerevan, where on July 6 two productions of “Beast on the Moon” are to open, one by the Moscow Art Theater and one by the Armenian State Youth Theater.