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The Who and the What

Playwright Ayad Akhtar returns to the Victory Gardens with a story of faith and family.

Susaan Jamshidi as Zarina and Minita Gandhi as Mahwish in Ayad Akhtar's The Who and the What, directed by Ron OJ Parson, at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre.
(courtesy of the production)

The last time a drama by Ayad Akhtar played Chicago, with 2012's Disgraced, the play continued on to Broadway and garnered the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Akhtar's The Who and the What is a lesser work than that award winner, but like Disgraced, deals with a Muslim family in America as it struggles to reconcile the ancient traditions of Islam with and the modern mores of the 21st century.

While deftly directed by Ron OJ Parson and featuring a strong cast, the Victory Gardens production of The Who and the What is troubled. Akhtar broaches complex issues as Afzal, a conservative, tradition-bound Muslim father who clashes with Zarina (Susaan Jamshidi) and Mahwish (Minita Gandhi), his intelligent, willful, USA-raised daughters. Over the course of the play, both sisters marry and start their own lives away from the glare of their father's misogynistic views. However, it's in this post-marriage period that the malevolence of Afzal's beliefs about women come into a harsh spotlight. Afzal condemns Mahwish's pre-marital sex life as downright evil. He describes Zarina's life's work as a trivial indulgence, stating, "Thank God she finally got that out of her system!" so that now she can go on to her real purpose: being a wife and mother.

The primary problem with The Who and the What lies in Rom Barkhourdar's depiction of Afzal and in Zarina and Mahwish's willingness to embrace their father despite his interference in and his scathing condemnation of the most intimate aspects of their lives. Depicting Afzal as a buffoon trivializes the toxicity of the character's belief and the hostile world they foment.

That problem is compounded by Zarina and Mahwish's reactions to their father. Akhtar would have us believe that two women defined by strength, intelligence, and independence would be able to embrace a man who sees them, at best, as second-class citizens. That's a belief that's all but impossible to buy into in The Who and the What, especially given the strength Jamshidi and Gandhi bring to the roles of Zarina and Mahwish.

Jamshidi instills nuance and depth in Zarina's terse, prickly personality, capturing the duality of a woman who doesn't back down from her beliefs no matter how scathingly she's condemned and who yearns for the approval of her loved ones. Gandhi is equally vivid as Mahwish, a bubbly romantic girlie girl whose biggest dream is to marry her childhood sweetheart. Post-marriage, she's forced to reckon with emotions that don't fit into the happy-housewife scenario she's always seen for herself. Shane Kenyon's Eli is unflaggingly devout and stalwart, his soft-spoken, non-combative personality providing a vivid and intriguing contrast to the bellicose Afzal. Barkholder buries Afzal in clownishly over-the-top histrionics, which turns the character's aggression into incongruous comic relief. Parson's direction brings out effective performances in Jamshidi, Gandhi, and Kenyon, but the missteps he makes with Barkholder — having the actor soften Afzal's edges with buffoonery — are troubling.

Grounding it all is Scott Davis' set, a capable rendering the middle-class home where most of the action takes place. When the action shifts, set pieces are brought in to lend a sense of place to the more minor locations, including a park bench and a small table. Kristy Hall's costume design emphasizes the personality differences in the sisters: Mahwish is a colorful fashion plate, her sister dresses down in neutrals.

Akhtar raises provocative, timely, and universal matters with The Who and the What. But once raised, he dismisses them. Instead of really getting into the clash between a deeply conservative father and his spirited daughters, Akhtar skirts the issue, and in the end, sweeps it under a rug of sentimentality.