“The Who & The What” at Arts West

Love abounds in this play, written by Ayad Akhtar and directed by Samip Raval. It centers around a Muslim family consisting of two grown daughters and their very loving but very traditional father. Yes love abounds, but it is tested by faith. Harvard educated Zarina is writing a novel exploring the tensions that exist when traditional Muslim beliefs collide with contemporary life. When her father chances upon a copy of Zarina’s manuscript, fireworks erupt.

Zarina, subtly played by Monica Jolly, loves her religion but is disturbed by its assumptions and admonitions regarding women. She explores these issues in her novel. The mere writing about them is sacrilegious thinks her father. His response reaffirms to Zarina, what is troublesome about the relationship of women to the teachings of Mohammad. Mahwish (Haleu Alaji), Zarina’s sister, also struggles with the demands the religion makes on women, yet she does it quietly in personal behavior her father will never know about.

The heretofore loving family is torn apart by this issue, and we the audience watch highly gifted actors attempt to negotiate between modern feminism and traditional Islamic thought. Especially powerful is Abhijeet Rane as Afzal, the father.

His whole vision of the world is blown up by what he reads in his daughter’s manuscript. It’s sacrilege! It’s horrifying and heartbreaking! He can’t imagine his daughter believing such blasphemy, no less writing a book in which it is the central element. And worst of all, she’s planning to publish it. Rane’s performance is wonderfully nuanced. He is exquisitely controlled at times and then frighteningly explosive. He’s heartbroken. He’s livid. Yet he exudes love for his daughters despite being absolutely confused. How could this be happening to him?

The final character in this piece is Eli, a convert to the religion, who’s in love with Zarina. Andre Nelson is effective in the role, but sadly the role is somewhat undeveloped by the playwright. That is the only weakness in a play that you’ll not soon forget.

This production was co-produced with Pratidhwani, a local cultural organization that promotes the performing arts and artists of the Indian subcontinent

Through Oct. 1, at Arts West Playhouse and Gallery, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle, 206 938-0339 or www.artswest.org.

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