Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013, and is an excellent fit for Chester Theatre, where it’s clear they take their time selecting thought-provoking, intelligent work for their season. This isn’t a show for the faint of heart, or a show for someone who doesn’t want to dissect it afterward – there’s a lot to digest here.
Amir (J. Paul Nicholas) is a driven lawyer of Pakistani heritage on track to make partner; his wife, Emily (Kim Stauffer) is an artist whose current work is inspired by Muslim imagery. Kim has convinced Amir to give legal advice to his nephew Abe’s (Abuzar Farrukh) imam, who has been arrested for allegedly providing money to terrorists. This makes Amir’s supervisors start looking at him more critically, and it all explodes at a dinner party at Amir and Emily’s home attended by Jory (Christina Gordon), a lawyer at Amir’s firm, and her husband Isaac (Jonathan Albert), an art curator interested in Emily’s work.
Director Kristen van Ginhoven (also the Artistic Director of WAM Theatre) must have realized what a gem this show was – she was as careful with it as it deserved, and what a brilliant production she’s given us. There’s not a beat missed; care is taken to make beautiful stage pictures whenever possible; the actors are at the absolute top of their game and she gives Akhtar’s words, both the poetic and the rapid-fire painful, time to breathe. Juliana von Haubrich’s set is so inviting – rich blues shadowing into dark blacks at the edges, with pops of yellow: definitely the home of an artist.
Nicholas is taut as a wire throughout his performance; he’s a man balancing two worlds within himself, and we can see the dichotomy is going to be the end of him. When that finally happens it’s such a shocking moment, so terrible yet so well-done. Stauffer (whose work in Capital Repertory’s Outside Mullingarin 2016 was so strong) is a perfect foil for Nicholas, and their chemistry is excellent. Gordon is smooth as silk, joking and calming the waters – until she isn’t anymore; Albert is perfect as that one “intellectual” friend we all have who just can’t…stop…pushing – until everything’s gone too far; Farrukh’s character arc over the course of the production shows such a change, and he handles it so well.
The themes brought up in this work are almost too many to name: cultural appropriation. Racism. Persecution. Sexism. Violence. The fear of the “other.” Political correctness. It’s just as – if not more – pertinent today as it was when it was first produced (unfortunately.) No one here comes out a hero, just like in real life; these characters have layers, some deeper than others, some trying harder than others to be a better person, some not even realizing what they’re doing and how it’s affecting those around them. I feel like I could watch this half a dozen times and pick up something new with each viewing – and if that’s not brilliant work, I don’t know what is.
“Disgraced”; Chester Theatre Company, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, MA; through July 15; $42.50-$10; Run time: 80 minutes; 413-354-7770; http://chestertheatre.org/