Thursday, February 18, 2016

Theatre Review: Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced" at the Rep powerfully portrays the agony of the immigrant

Photo: Peter Wochniak
Share on Google+:

We are, as the late JFK once wrote, a nation of immigrants. Yet we never seem to get comfortable with the idea. Today's huddled masses yearning to breath free often become tomorrow's angry nativists howling to build walls. A century ago the "violent foreigners" were Italian; now they're Mexican. Sixty years ago the followers of a dangerous "foreign" religion were Jewish. Now they're Islamic. We never seem to learn.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's production of Disgraced by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar drops us right in the middle of the whirlpool of suspicion and ignorance that swirls around Islamic immigrants in America today. As the play opens, corporate lawyer Amir Kapoor has it all. Having renounced his religion as irretrievably violent and having distanced himself from his devout Pakistani family, he's on the fast track to partnership at a posh New York City firm.

That all changes when his wife Emily—an artist who has become fascinated with Islamic themes in her work—asks him to look into the case of an imam who has been accused of sending funds to terrorist organizations. Amir resists. He's not a criminal lawyer, he points out, and besides he's not convinced of the imam's innocence. Emily gets her way, though, and as her world and Amir's begin to unravel, she soon discovers the truth of the old saying about being careful what you wish for.

Photo: Peter Wochniak
The Rep's production is flawless, with precise direction by Seth Gordon and outstanding performances by a fine ensemble cast, headed by John Pasha as Amir. Mr. Akhtar puts the character through a wringer in ways that bring Shakespeare's Othello to mind, but Mr. Pasha is entirely up to the challenge. Supporting him in fine style are Leigh Williams as Emily, Rachel Christopher as Amir's coworker Jory, Jonathan C. Kaplan as Jory's ethically challenged museum curator husband, and Fahim Hamid as Amir's nephew Abe, who suggests that Amir has lost his way.

The playwright who gave us the brilliant Invisible Hand at the Rep Studio back in 2012 it again with a powerful portrayal of the problems immigrants face, especially when they're part of a demonized and poorly understood minority. How much can you assimilate before you lose your own identity? And is it ever enough for people who will always see you as the "other" no mater what you do or say? We learn from history that we do not learn from history, which makes this a very relevant play these days.

Performances of Disgraced continue through March 6 on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. It's an intense and thought-provoking work. I recommend it highly. For ticket information, visit the Rep's web site.

No comments: