'Mona' play recounts story of faith

Freshman Lillian Chason was cast as the lead role, but died in December from H1N1 complications.

The cast of “A New Dress for Mona” spent hours in rehearsal, and even more time praying for their hospitalized lead actress, Lillian Chason.

Based on the story of a young woman killed for her faith, “Mona” was to have featured Chason in the title role. Chason, a freshman, died on Dec. 16 with complications from the H1N1 virus.

The play follows the real-life story of Mona Mahmudnizhad, a woman of the Baha’i faith in Iran, who was executed for her beliefs.

See “A New Dress for Mona”
Time: 8:15 p.m. tonight
          2 p.m. Saturday
          8:15 p.m. Sunday
          4 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Monday
          5 p.m. Tuesday
Location: Kenan Theatre

A memorial gathering for Lillian Chason:
Time: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Location: Gerrard Hall

Though members of the cast and crew said they were initially crushed when Chason died, they came to feel her spirit in the play.

“The spirit of Lillian and the spirit of Mona just coalesced,” said director Joseph Megel. “This was just heart wrenching and mystifying and inexplicable, but we sort of feel that both Lillian and Mona are looking on us and smiling.”

Mona was a member of the Baha’i faith, which is recognized internationally but is not recognized by members of Islam in Iran, said Mark Perry, the author of the play and a member of the Baha’i faith.

Mona was executed along with several other women after being accused of teaching religious children’s classes, he said.

“I was really moved by the story of this young girl and the other women who were executed just simply for their belief and their refusal to cave in to pressure,” Perry said.

While working on staging this play, Megel said he realized the story was about witnessing, particularly witnessing political injustice.

To emphasize the importance of witness, most of the cast form an ensemble, changing roles and costumes.

“We’re telling someone’s life story and telling that as a group is really powerful,” said Natalie Pelletier, a freshman who is playing Mona.

She said that the group experience was powerful and helped all  of the cast pull together.

While Chason was in the hospital, the cast took turns playing Mona during rehearsals, waiting for Chason’s return. After her death, the group returned from break and shifted roles to fill her place.

Though Mona’s story takes place in the 1980s, and there is still religious conflict for the Baha’i. Perry’s brother-in-law, Saeid Rezaie, a leader of the Baha’i community in Iran, is in prison in Tehran for his beliefs.

Perry said that Rezaie prayed for Chason while in prison and his first question to his wife any time she visited was about Chason’s health.

“That’s the kind of witnessing we’re talking about. It’s real world uniting of people’s hearts,” he said.

A theater veteran of more than 30 years, Megel said he has never worked on a theatrical endeavor that was as emotional as this, adding that this was an example of art resonating with real-life experiences.

Members of the cast said that after Lillian’s death the play took on an even more important role for them than it previously had.

“This play is about understanding yourself in a world of chaos and having the strength to do what is right, which is not always the easy path,” Stephanie Linas, a sophomore and member of the play, wrote in an e-mail. “Both Lillian and Mona helped up discover this lesson.”

Contact the Arts Editor at artsdesk@unc.edu.



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