"Disgraced," drama being staged at Norfolk theater, will make you gasp, and think
April 12, 2018
One of the five characters in the identity drama “Disgraced” proclaims, in the last moments of its 90-minute journey: “You have forgotten who you are.”
The play is about what led the character to that state, though it might be more accurate to say it was a case of denial rather than forgetfulness. “Disgraced” is a meaningful and altogether important play that’s more about hiding identity than finding it.
The production also rescues the theater season from the pleasant fare and marketing stunts that threaten to make Virginia Stage Company’s emphasis more on “nonprofit” than on the Equity-professional company it was organized to be. This play proves the theater can still reach the level of profundity one has the right to expect.
Moments after the lights go up, a supportive wife bemoans the fact that a waiter where they dined the night before looked at her husband “but didn’t at all see who he was.”
What Amir is, but doesn’t admit, is a Muslim who has “sold out” to American capitalism, secretly changed his name and hopes to become a partner in a Jewish-run law firm. If he hasn’t sold his soul, he has sold his identity.
The play also is about living in the shadow of 9/11, which is quite different for Amir than it has been for most of those who will buy tickets at the Wells Theatre through April 22.
“Disgraced,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013, is more than an “important” play that must be seen for political reasons or as a new-wave “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” The fiery dinner party here is attended by the lapsed Muslim, his Caucasian wife, his black law colleague and her Jewish husband.
We are promised that the “conversation turns to religion, politics and Islamophobia.” You might feel oversaturated with passionate discussions of race, gender, nationality and religion. You might be wary of a play billed as so controversial that the audience is invited to stay and talk things out after productions.
“Disgraced,” however, is quite clear, both in structure and language, in its threat. It does encourage soul-searching – though you can do that without the aid of a “facilitator.”
The blows are struck through natural dialogue that is never preachy. Under the assured direction of Khanisha Foster, the cast and crew make a unique and eloquent contribution to join all the other versions of the play being done around the country. (This is reportedly the most-produced new play of the regional-theater year.)
Rom Barkhordar, a veteran of Chicago’s Steppenwolf and Goodman Theaters, captures both the vulnerability and the bombast of Amir – an acting arc of formidable range.
Anna Sundberg conveys the ambition and weakness of the “Caucasian wife” who has become obsessed with supporting her husband’s heritage. But the playwright lets her down when, in a telling moment, she has nothing to do but go get coffee.
Simon Feil presents a Jewish point of view that is quick to criticize Israel and happily accepts the pork tenderloin at dinner “to make up for years lost.”
Joy Jones, a veteran of Chapel Hill’s Carolina Playmakers, displays the assurance of an ambitious career woman. A blocking misfire forces her to deliver some of her best lines over her shoulder to an audience behind her.
Adding youthful fire is Taha Mandviwala as Abe, once known as Hussein. He asks Amir to help a local imam who is accused of supporting a terrorist group just as Amir is about to secure a law firm partnership.
Blair Mielnik’s set suggests the tasteful affluence of a New York upper-crust apartment, though it doesn’t look lived in. Meg Murray’s stylish costumes, particularly for the women, are right on target.
The play makes the audience gasp at times, but is more thought-provoking than shocking.
It is to be treasured – and pondered. Clocking in at less than 90 minutes, it is time well spent. Experience it, by all means.