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'Orange' play explores ways of connecting with 'the other'

Meet Leela.

Having arrived in Orange County for a family wedding, the serious teenager from India writes in her journal and goes on an adventure in search of the perfect orange.

She is a young woman on the autism spectrum who finds it difficult to navigate social interactions. But one night, she embarks on a drive with her cousin Priti, and the journey is a discovery for everyone.

This is the plot of playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil's drama "Orange," a new play by the Twin Cities writer that is making its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory March 5 until March 26.

"Orange" was commissioned by South Coast Repertory as part of its CrossRoads Initiative, a program funded by the Time Warner Foundation to bring playwrights to Orange County on immersive residencies as a means for inspiration. Kapil, who hadn't been to Orange County before, took a few days to explore the area, including visiting the circle in Orange and the old blimp hangars in Tustin. The sightseeing served to inform her work.

The result is a play featuring three actors, Pia Shah portraying Leela, Karthik Srinivasan playing all the male characters and Anjali Bhimani as all the women.

"The biggest challenge is making sure in the short amount of time in the play that when the audience meets the characters for the first time, we're able to convey a fully realized human," said Bhimani.

Bhimani grew up in North Tustin, participated in Foothill High's theater department under the tutelage of drama teacher Jan Laurie Russell and graduated from Northwestern University in Illinois. Her parents met when they acted in a play during medical school, and the family regularly saw shows and plays throughout Southern California, she said about her earliest theatrical exposure.

Bhimani said she could identify most with Priti — "I remember that snarky teenager and desperate desire to be loved and cool and treated like an adult" — since she grew up in a first-generation Indian household but felt more American than Indian. Nonetheless, she explained, the heart of "Orange" is the relationship between Leela and her mother.

"Without the play being too specific about autism, we're dealing with a lot of things today where people are made to be the other and are scared to be different," Bhimani said. "There's very much a person in 'the other,' and you can't help but fall in love with her."

Throughout the adventure, Leela sketches her observations in her diary.

Director Jessica Kubzansky said bringing Kapil's script to life has been deliciously challenging.

"Orange" is an illustrative play, and it called for set designers to articulate the journey with care and intelligence, Kubzansky said.

She collaborated with scenic designer Michael Raiford and projection designer Mike Tutaj, who take the audience into Leela's thoughts by projecting onto two screens the drawings from her diary.

Raiford and Tutaj worked out how to give surfaces to the story and project not just one big backdrop but rather an evolving palette that makes elements pop out and disappear again as the show progresses.

The creative team said the concept makes for a profound experience when meeting Leela's character and helps better an understanding of the language and expectations when interacting with people on the autism spectrum.

"For me, I think the message is that the more we all stop making people something else, strange or other, the more we realize we are connected," Bhimani said, "and that rather than being scared of something different, connect with people who are different than you because we're all similar more than you think."

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IF YOU GO

What: "Orange"

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until March 26

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $22

Information: (714) 708-5555 or visit scr.org.

kathleen.luppi@latimes.com

Twitter: @KathleenLuppi

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