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Disgraced
by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 12, 2016

John Pasha, Leigh Williams Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

John Pasha, Leigh Williams
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Disgraced is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that couldn’t be more timely. Raising more questions than it answers, it addresses issues of Muslim identity in American society, as well as faith vs. secularism, and even faith vs. faith. There’s so much here that it can be difficult to process, but it’s a story that’s immediate, demanding, and continually challenging. As the latest production at the Rep, this play is profoundly challenging audiences nightly.

Amir Kapoor (John Pasha) is a Pakistani-born lawyer who enjoys a lavish, upper class existence in a beautifully decorated apartment in New York City. He was raised Muslim but doesn’t particularly identify with his family’s faith anymore. His white, non-Muslim artist wife, Emily (Leigh Williams), admires Muslim traditions much more than Amir does, incorporating them into her paintings and drawing the attention of fellow artist and gallery owner Isaac (Jonathan C. Kaplan). When his more devout nephew Abe (Fahim Hamid) comes to Amir for help in defending a beloved imam who has been jailed for questionable reasons, Amir is conflicted but eventually offers a degree of support, which starts a chain of events that changes the lives of Amir and everyone close to him.

Much of the action revolves around a dinner party that Amir and Emily host for Isaac and his wife, Jory (Rachel Christopher), a lawyer at Amir’s firm. The conflict between the couples, and the growing conflict between Amir and Emily, as well as the affect of Amir’s actions and beliefs on Abe, generates much of the drama. Isaac’s Jewish identity and exprience, and Jory’s as an African American woman factor into the discussions and conflicts, although Amir and his attitude toward his faith and himself is at the center of everything. His attitudes and actions are what drive the play for the most part, and it’s his reaction to a revelation about Emily that brings the play’s conflicts to a climax. There are no easy answers here, for Amir, for Abe (who changes perhaps the most throughout the play), or for anyone else.

The characters are well-defined, and all are flawed in various ways. Pasha, as Amir, projects strength, charm, determination, fear, and anger at various moments in an enigmatic,  compelling performance. As Emily, Williams brings out a degree of sympathy for her character as well as a degree of astonishment and conflict. Her scenes with Pasha are often emotionally charged, and believably portrayed. Kaplan is also fine as the ambitious Isaac, and Christopher is a standout as perhaps the play’s most likable character, the equally ambitious Jory. As the young, increasingly troubled Abe, Hamid gives an emotional, riveting performance. He raises some excellent questions about the treatment of Muslims, and particularly young Muslim men, in American society, and his determination and frustration are readily apparent.

The setting here is, as usual for the Rep, stunningly realized. The lavishly decorated apartment is impeccably portrayed in Kevin Depinet’s masterful set. Dorothy Marshal Englis’s costumes outfit the characters well, with a decided air of upscale New York style that fits the tone established by the apartment. Abe, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt at first and then later in more traditional Muslim attire, stands out from the more self-consciously sophisticated style of everyone else. Attention is paid to Amir’s expensive shirts, and his high-priced lawyer look lives up to that description. There’s also excellent lighting by Ann G. Wrightson and consummate sound design from Rusty Wandall.

While for the most part this production is impeccably staged, I have to mention one extremely awkward moment late in the play. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I will say that what is supposed to be one of the play’s most shocking moments is unfortunately shocking for all the wrong reasons. The clumsy staging of this key moment is distracting and entirely unconvincing. I hope this staging is improved in subsequent performances because of its great importance to the play. Otherwise, the dramatic moments are timed right and the acting is impressive, and the power of the play’s conclusion is retained despite that one unbelievably staged moment.

Despite that one notable flaw, Disgraced at the Rep is profoundly provocative production. There’s much to think about, wonder about, and discuss here in Ayad Akhtar’s powerful script. The questions the play raises can be convicting and even disturbing. It’s a profoundly affecting experience.

Jonathan C. Kaplan, Rachel Christopher, Leigh Williams, John Pasha Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jonathan C. Kaplan, Rachel Christopher, Leigh Williams, John Pasha
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Disgraced is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until March 6, 2016.

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