WEST ORANGE, NJ — Luna Stage is celebrating its silver anniversary this year with the opening of its 25th season on Nov. 2, beginning with a two-hour, two-person production of “Paradise,” by Laura Maria Censabella. The show tells the story of a Yemeni-American teenager and her high school biology teacher who team up to win her a scholarship, and the student-mentor relationship that forms between them. To celebrate the rest of the 25th season, Luna Stage will present two more stage shows in addition to a solo performer festival, where artists and performers from New Jersey will be able to put on their own works in December for audiences.
Luna Stage was founded in 1992 in neighboring Montclair by Jane Mandel, and in 2010 moved to the Valley Arts district in West Orange.
“When we moved to Valley Arts there was a shift,” Cheryl Katz, Luna Stage’s artistic director, told the West Orange Chronicle in a phone interview on Nov. 3. “It deepened and became more resonant, and we wanted to do work that would be meaningful in the community.”
Katz said that being in West Orange has made the production team take a closer look at the plays they put on, saying their choices have become more relevant to the community.
“We’ve had auxiliary programs for artists, and programs for people to explore their hobbies and art impulses,” she said.
Keeping a smaller theater company alive for 25 years is an accomplishment, Katz acknowledged. “We want to keep it going,” she said. “There are ways to have a different impact, to work with new artists and writers and there are new partnerships to develop. There are always new ways to expand our tentacles out. We want to make more of a resonance and impact in the community.”
Katz described “Paradise” as a show about women in science, mentorship, love and science, and the struggles that many people have straddling cultures. Lily Balsen, the actress playing the role of Yasmeen, the Yemeni teenager, agreed.
“It brings up a lot of themes in a really great way,” Balsen said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Nov. 2. “I can only say that each day this becomes more and more relevant.”
Balsen, who has played the part of Yasmeen before, said audience members will not be lectured into learning a lesson during the show.
“It’s a play about words,” she said. “You learn science through our discussion and you’re willing to explore that.”
Balsen’s counterpart in the play agreed.
“I think people come to this show thinking it will lecture them, but it doesn’t,” Grant Shaud said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Nov. 2. Shaud is an off-Broadway and Broadway veteran who plays the biology teacher. “My character is coming from one place and she’s coming from another. They give a better understanding of each other. It has a science background but it’s really a relationship play.”
As they work together, the student and teacher have discussions and disagreements concerning religion and culture, a conflict that is the centerpiece of the show. Balsen said that, even though she is not in the same position as her character, she can relate to elements of the personality.
“That’s always what I go to first, when I connect with (a character),” Balsen said. “She wants to rise above and she’s passionate. I connected to where she came from. I’ve used the word ‘triangulation,’ when someone is trying to balance their school life, their home life and their personal life.”
Balsen said that there was a lot to learn from playing Yasmeen, a character who is younger than she is and who has a different background.
“There’s a feistiness and a fire to her, and she’s probably smarter than I am, which is fun,” she joked. “I see from the lengths that she’s willing to go, I can stand up for myself more. As women, I think it’s especially important that we know that. She’s so much more advanced than I was at that age.”
Shaud hopes that, because the racial themes of the play are so relevant today, many people will attend the show.
“It’s a good show,” he said. “People from many different directions have come to see it, and it’s great to know that. I hope more come.”