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As a portrait of the Armenian immigrant experience in early 20th century America, this Richard Kalinoski play has the potential to be a compelling story of hardship and triumph. At its heart is Aram Tomasian, an Armenian refugee who, following the slaughter of his family at the hands of the Turks, has settled in Wisconsin to earn a living as a photographer. To make his life complete, he has married 15-year-old mail-order bride Seta, a fellow Armenian orphaned during the Turkish pogroms. Together these two survivors struggle to build a relationship-- a challenge made more difficult by Seta's adolescent naivete and her inability to conceive children. Ultimately, it's the healing power of time, along with Seta's acquaintance with a young orphan named Vincent, that forge a growing intimacy between the Tomasians.

Described with heartbreaking vividness and subtle humor, this story is a delicately balanced account. Kalinoski has carefully crafted a script that uses the Tomasians as both a symbol of the Armenian immigrant plight and an example of an unusual but tender husband-wife union. It's a script that requires an equally balanced and sensitive staging. But this production, directed with noticeable heavy-handedness by Diane Benedict, is an uneven interpretation that draws more upon stereotypes than on realistic portrayals. Hampered by overdone theatrics and an overall unpolished feel, the production calls attention to its flaws and distracts the audience from the emotion of Kalinoski's characters and the arc of their uncertain relationship.

In the main roles, Bart Myer and Lily Jha are largely successful at handling the script's transitions from overt comedy to stark intensity. Myer's Aram is a dignified man intent on maintaining a traditional family. He is stuffy and stoic when the script calls for it; and he is often engagingly awkward when Aram is disarmed by Seta's girlish vitality. Jha also provides some dimension to Aram's child bride. At first shy yet artlessly pert, her Seta evolves into a more poised woman in the second act.

But, despite these gratifying aspects of their performances, Myer and Jha are encumbered by their tendency to exaggerate the very traits that make their characters so captivating. At times allowing their Armenian accents to overpower their words, they end up painting their characters with broad strokes, when the staging would be better served by more subtle portrayals. Trevor Gardner, as Vincent, likewise hinders the staging in a role that requires more polish than this ardent young performer can deliver. Turning in the most genuine performance here is Emmett Jacobs, who plays the aged Vincent. Serving as the play's narrator, Jacobs' Vincent is an unpretentious commentator who sensitively underscores the heartfelt emotion in this touching work.

"Beast on the Moon," presented by and at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (Sept. 30 only). Aug. 31-Oct. 6. $15. (562) 494-1014.

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