Arizona Theatre Company (ATC) last night lay bare an exquisite rendering of Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Disgraced.” Timely in an excruciating fashion, the paralyzing, cautionary tale at Phoenix’s Herberger Theater comes to Arizona after bending perspectives across stages in Chicago, New York and London, and then culturally shocking Broadway through March of 2015.
Overpowered by the shattering and wounded human tale, traditional live theatre critereon became secondary during last night’s performance. The story belongs primarily to Middle Eastern-American Amir (Elijah Alexander), a high-powered mergers and acquisitions attorney in New York City’s upper East Side who takes pride in and ribs about his pristinely-white $600 dress shirts. His wife Emily (Allison Jean White), a painter impassioned about Islamic art, his African-American female lawyer colleague Jory (Nicole Lewis), and Jory’s art-curator husband, Jewish-American Isaac (Richard Baird) formed a compelling Melting Pot quartet of American Dream backgrounds. Infusing the narrative with one more broiling social element, Amir’s immigrant nephew Hussein (Vandit Bhatt) who has changed his name to Abe Jensen rounds out the cast. Through these dis-inhibited friends and family members, Amir’s story stewed and scalded ever more harshly as the foursome dinner party mixed alcohol-tainted conversation with ethnicity-laced current events.
“Disgraced” is about race and religion and gender equity between Muslims and Blacks and Jews and Caucasians–Americans all. It is about the equal potential for both art and greed to shape us. It is about how marriage and family connect and define us. The only way to make such huge themes meaningful, as Akhtar’s script so provocatively demonstrated, was through characters who own and communicate their most intimate and protected stories, who allow us to share their vulnerability.
“Disgraced” was the kind of play that continues to live inside the viewer after the curtain closes. The show began churning conversations that we each need personally to continue. It begged we reconcile within ourselves the desperate questions posed through the characters whose life stories were turned upside down before our eyes.
When Amir appeared in the opening scene as the literal portrait of an admirable, respected Napoleonic kind of hero, how could we not squirm when his violent pride and self-loathing shame bled through the canvas? When Emily saw the beautiful and the pure and the philosophical in both Islamic Art and her husband’s heritage, must it also cruelly represent naïveté? How about Jory’s torn allegiances between a fellow professional’s aspirations and her own prideful struggle upward from New York’s impoverished inner city? Then there’s Isaac who is a complete mess as he attempts to navigate between his palpable love of art and his love of the artist, between the tortured pasts of his own ‘people’ and Amir’s ‘people.’
Those aching themes of natural dialogue resonated to the core on account of being told in very personal and heart-wrenching detail by a consummate ensemble of actors. On top of it, so many more tense, intentional, tight-knit details that were original to Arizona Theatre Company’s production contributed to the bone-chilling whole.
The creative team led by director Ira Goldstein achieved metaphorical perfection in the set design, a crisp flat of towering, angular white full of mirrors and windows. The high-polished environment simultaneously produced glaring exposure, soul-searching reflection and harsh transparency. Even the music and selective lighting between scene changes carried remarkably the dramatic arc. A bustling electric New York vibe overlayed on deep bass and cello melody eventually stripped to the melancholy sophistication of just lower register symphonic strings. Finally the sound evolved to the more tense high strings of East Indian music while the light and color onstage was gradually extinguished. All the subtle details inventively tracked the story’s emotional downward spiral.
“It’s time we woke up,” implored Emily specifically about ancient art but with far reaching implications, “Islam is part of who we all are, too.”
With constant loaded phrases, reality poked and prodded relentlessly at picturesque, cultural ideals throughout the entire “Disgraced” production. How do those ideals really shape us in daily interaction, on personal terms?
After a rousing standing ovation, one season ticket holder remarked, “That was by far the best show I’ve ever seen here.”
The woman in front of him turned around in temporary awed silence before she shook her head slowly and said, “Wow. Just….. wow.”
Influenced by heritage and experience, our individual shortcomings are always present–as Akhtar’s haunting drama made clear. We cannot outrun the darkness in our personal or cultural pasts. Should we choose to remove the elegant beauty–the grace–that our hearts can so capably unearth and discover, be aware. In the absence of honor and mercy (qualities we each are at liberty to uphold or disregard), the resulting stripped-bare, imperfect humans will forever be nothing more than Disgraced.