Saroyan’s ‘My Heart’s in The Highlands’ in Western Armenian in NJ


Actors Karnig Nercessian, left, and Gor Babakhanyan

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

ENGLEWOOD, N.J. — A new production of William Saroyan’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” was presented in Western Armenian translation on June 26 and 27 by the Mher Megerdchian Theatrical Group of the Tekeyan Cultural Association here at the Dwight-Englewood School. On June 27, as many as 250 people were in the audience. The local theater troupe was augmented through the participation of noted actor Hovhannes Babakhanyan of Yerevan, and his family. Babakhanyan served as director of the production, as well as one of the lead actors.

The play, although ostensibly set in 1914 Fresno, is really about the Depression era. It was originally written by Saroyan as a short story and published in 1936, while the play version was published three years later. The plot is less important than the sentiments and ideas conveyed, making it a little hard to follow at times. One of its main ideas is the triumph of artistic creation over material difficulties, and the importance of art to ordinary people.

Babakhanyan, who gave an interview to the Mirror-Spectator after his performance, feels that “Highlands” is an important play for Armenians. The title of the play — the notion of hearts being “in the highlands” — refers to the longing for one’s native land, no matter where one is: “When we are young we don’t feel it. After the age of 40 to 45 years, we begin to feel it. Our ancestors were buried in those lands. We grew up and ate apricots from the trees growing there where our ancestors lie. Eventually the cycle repeats. Somehow this must affect us not only physiologically but psychologically. This is why Armenians from the diaspora who never have been to Armenia suddenly start crying when they arrive.”

Even more interesting, he feels, is the fact that William Saroyan’s own heart was buried after his death in Yerevan — therefore in this case, Saroyan literally made sure his heart ended up in the highlands.

Karnig Nercessian, who played the elderly and homeless Jasper MacGregor in the performances, later added: “This play reveals a truth in Armenian history — poverty and homelessness. Saroyan saw it all himself.” He also felt that the meaning of “my heart’s in the highlands” is that nobody really dies. Their heart or soul always lives on in the highlands even when their body is gone.

The original Western Armenian translation by Hovhannes Shohmelian was tailored by Babakhanyan to fit the requirements of his production: “I changed a lot from the original but very carefully, and I think that if Saroyan were to have seen it, he would have recognized that I preserved its main ideas.” He took into consideration the special talents of the actors at his disposal, adding to some roles and taking away from others. He cut back from minor characters like Rufe Aply, and elevated the nature of the character of Jasper MacGregor: “Jasper in my version was a true world-class musician. He was famous. He wasn’t just any old homeless vagrant, but without money or family he ended up alone in an old age home.” Nercessian, who also played the same character 11 years ago in an earlier production, stated that he felt the difference in the greater importance given to his character.

Babakhanyan also emphasized the Armenian element of the play. The grandmother was in traditional Armenian costume. Babakhanyan himself designed the costumes for the play while still in Armenia.

The three main characters in the play are the young boy Johnny, his father Ben Alexander, an unpublished poet, and the elderly homeless thespian and musician MacGregor. They represent the three ages of man. Nercessian said that they also are projections of Saroyan’s own self. The actors playing all three roles in this performance were generally quite good.

Nercessian, an experienced amateur actor living in New York, was able to convey both the dignity and the pathos of his character.

Babakhanyan, who has acted in many movies and television programs in Armenia, was awarded the title of Meritorious Actor of the Republic of Armenia by Armenia’s president in 2006. In this production, he ably projected the anguish and optimism of the struggling poet Ben Alexander, living in poverty but dedicated to his art and humanity.

Babakhanyan’s 11-year-old son Gor appeared in the important and extensive role of Johnny, Ben Alexander’s young son. While Babakhanyan senior is used to working in Western Armenian, this was a new experience for his son. Gor managed to carry it off well. He was expressive and despite some occasional affectations, was generally convincing and able to maintain the interest of the audience.

Hovhannes’ wife, Mari, a well-known actress in her own right, appeared in the role of the young wife moving into Ben Alexander’s home, while the Babakhanyan’s two daughters, Ella and Lia, had brief roles as neighbors too.

Another local actor, Harout Takvorian, who played Mr. Kosak, the grocer, ably showed the sympathetic side of a businessman supporting an artist and dreamer. Talar Zokian represented the spirit of Johnny’s deceased mother powerfully through dance. Veteran actor Shmavon Atamian ably portrayed Mr. Wiley, the mailman, while Lucyn Jamgotchian-Djirdjirian, dressed in traditional Armenian costume, made her first appearance with the Megerdchian Theatrical Group as Johnny’s grandmother.

Harout Chatmajian was an experienced production manager who in the 1999 production of the same play by the Mher Megerdchian Theatrical Group performed in the role of Ben Alexander. At a cast party after the second performance, he praised the way that Hovhannes Babakhanyan worked with the troupe: “We liked Hovig as a brother from the first day. We worked easily together.”

Nercessian exclaimed: “Hovig was great! He never corrected me. He asked instead, ‘What do you feel at this moment?’”

In turn, Babakhanyan was impressed by the dedication of the volunteer actors of the troupe. They alternated their practices from Queens to New Jersey during evenings, so they often had long commutes after work. He felt that Armenian-language plays were important for the diaspora: “Plays can help keep and educate the young in their mother tongue.” This is important not just for the spectators, but perhaps even more so for the actors: “Parts of such plays will stay in the minds of the actors.”

In a cast party after the event, approximately 100 people from the theater troupe and the community attended. Actress and Armenian television personality Karine Kocharian of the Ardzagang Armenian television show in New York, declared: “It is as if the encounter with William Saroyan cleanses our souls. It was not only Saroyan’s influence which moved us, but also that of the actors.”

Some of the members of the theater group were honored at the party. Marie Zokian, who for many years served the theater group with great energy and dedication, and for this particular play worked with the stage props, was given a plaque delivered by Armenia’s representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Garen A. Nazarian, who was also present at the performance. Zokian’s close friend, Maro Hajakian, spoke highly of her abilities, declaring, “If one day Marie would want to bring the moon down, Mari would bring it down.”

Nazarian pointed out how proud he was that a talented actor like Hovhannes Babakhanyan, and his family members, also good actors, were representing Armenian culture and the Republic of Armenia here in America and strengthening cultural ties with the Armenian Diaspora.

Hagop Vartivarian, chairman of the Mher Megerdchian Theatrical Group, served as a deft master of ceremonies at the cast party, making sure that all who contributed to the work of the troupe were recognized. There were many other speakers from the group and the Armenian community at large, including Vartan Garniki (Oganesian), the former artistic director of the Megerdchian Theatrical Group.

(See full story in next post.)

The chief benefactors of the play were Saro and Hilda Hartounian of Franklin Lakes, NJ, while many other prominent Armenians also financially supported the production.